Penn State coach James Franklin gets it wrong on fourth-down gamble
STATE COLLEGE — Later in the night, Penn State coach James Franklin went to great pains to say he would be on a mission to make everyone in his football program uncomfortable, “including myself.”
“You only grow in life when you’re uncomfortable,” Franklin said, his own emotions raw.
That’s fine, since after the Nittany Lions gave up two touchdowns in the last seven minutes to lose to Ohio State 27-26, Franklin should probably be the most uncomfortable football coach in the state of Pennsylvania.
If Franklin says his team is great but not elite, then the same goes for the head coach right now. He’s done wonders with Penn State’s football program — period. But elite?
Here was a second straight one-point loss to Ohio State after holding a fourth-quarter lead.
The outside world is flaming Franklin right now for choosing, on the do-or-lose play of the night, to take the ball out of the hands of a brilliant quarterback having a career night.
The outside world has it right. Franklin knows it. He said it. Fourth-and-1, down by a point, maybe you bet on your offensive line and a terrific tailback. Fourth-and 5? Trace McSorley was made for that moment.
The senior had been a magician all night. That isn’t a subjective assessment. McSorley had the greatest night of total offense in Penn State history.
On that crucial play — fourth-and-5, at Ohio State’s 43-yard line, 82 seconds left — the call was a straight handoff. Instead of being fooled by such a counterintuitive call, Ohio State’s defense ate the play up. Penn State tailback Miles Sanders never had a chance.
“We obviously did not make the right call in that situation,” Franklin said. “That’s on me. Nobody else.”
Penn State had called two timeouts before the play, with Ohio State calling one in between. If Franklin didn’t like the play, it was on him to voice an objection. He’s not a shy man.
Sometimes coaches say a call was wrong in retrospect but say it in sort of a smart-aleck way, like, the play didn’t work, so yes, it was wrong. Everyone’s a genius in retrospect.
No, Franklin meant it.
“That was the play from the jump,” Sanders said later.
They’d tried to draw the Buckeyes offside, didn’t do that, called timeout. But, at least according to Sanders, the play call stayed the same.
McSorley, who had proven long ago what a stand-up guy he is, defended the whole thing. McSorley said he saw “exactly” what offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne had seen — “I saw the same thing. The play was there to be made. We just didn’t make the play.”
No, the Buckeyes made the play.
“They did a good job, they ran a twist, get in the backfield quickly,” McSorley said. “We weren’t to pick up that twist. They were able to (get to) Miles right when he got the handoff and take him down.”
What had they seen?
“We knew they were going to make their linebackers jump,” McSorley said. “They weren’t going to be set in position. They were going to give us a chance to get a hole up in the middle and crease them. That’s kind of what our thought process was. We just weren’t able to pick up a twist. The guy got in the backfield.”
That linebacker in the backfield probably could have blown up McSorley just as much as taking down Sanders. But the call still was too cute by half. Sanders had run 16 times. He’d gained at least 5 yards just four times. So 25 percent. Even those four times, none of his runs resulted in a first down. Not once all night.
McSorley? He’d run 25 times, picked up at least 5 yards on 12 of them. Yes, he had the pass option keeping the defense honest, but those percentages are what they are. If we’re talking about elite players, McSorley is one of the most elite in Penn State history.
“You revisit every decision you make,” McSorley said later. “Run. Pass. How you slept during the week.”
This week, nobody will sleep great up here, not after how this one went down.