Penn State (3-2) may have slogged its way through the first half on Saturday and had a 13-3 deficit heading into the locker room, but it was a completely different team that beat Minnesota 29-26 in overtime.
The game was a crash course in all of the small things the Nittany Lions must continue to fix, as well as a coming-of-age party for some of its young playmakers.
Safety Marcus Allen’s 22 tackles were a career high and put him at a tie for No. 16 in the nation with 50 total tackles and No. 26 in the nation with 27 solo tackles. He was lent to the linebacker unit on many defensive snaps to fill the box as the “hybrid” safety Penn State sometimes uses, which helped out an extremely thin and injury-laden second tier.
▪ Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys told reporters after the game that he believed his team lost the game in the third quarter, and statistically, he is right.
Led by quarterback Trace McSorley, Penn State went on a 17-0 run and racked up 190 yards of offense to Minnesota’s 71.
The team got its first spark from an 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Irvin Charles. It was the redshirt freshman’s first-ever catch, first touchdown and the team’s first converted third down of the game.
Kicker Tyler Davis hit a 27-yarder to tie the game and McSorley dove for a touchdown to put Penn State ahead 20-13 by the end of the period.
▪ Davis broke the Penn State record (previously held by Sam Ficken) for consecutive field goals made with 17, and is 17 for 17 in his career. The kicker only began playing football after his first year in college, and was a former soccer player-turned-Penn State transfer.
▪ McSorley seems to find a new learning curve each game, and then he seems to adapt to it throughout and performs better as the game continues.
Statistically, this is actually true.
The redshirt sophomore leads the Big Ten in passing with 1,284 yards and almost 40 percent of those yards have come in third quarters this season. One-third of his touchdowns have been in third quarters, and McSorley has a 163.08 quarterback rating in that period.
He also is No. 9 nationally in comeback efforts when Penn State is down by a margin of 8-14 points, and has thrown for 281 yards in that situation and 208 yards when Penn State is down by a margin of 1-7 points.
▪ Not only did Penn State’s offensive line open a huge hole for running back Saquon Barkley to burst through for a 25-yard touchdown in overtime, they did not cede a sack to Minnesota.
▪ Penn State did not have a single turnover, despite entering the game with 12 fumbles on the year.
The. First. Half.
By the numbers, Minnesota’s 13-3 lead by the end of the first half was only lopsided because of Penn State’s failure to convert on third down. The teams were a combined 2 for 14 on first-half third down conversions, and both were Minnesota’s (one led to a touchdown) — Penn State was 0 for 7.
▪ While he didn’t take a sack, McSorley was pressured hard and often early by Minnesota’s defensive line. The Gophers had nine tackles for loss against Penn State and the hurried quarterback had to throw on his back foot or on the run often.
▪ The line also provided poor room to run. Feature back Barkley had just 38 yards before his 25-yard overtime sprint, and was pushed back for 26 yards throughout.
▪ Instead of going for a touchdown on a fourth down-and-1 in the second quarter and down only 3-0, Penn State head coach James Franklin opted for a field goal.
He explained the reasoning postgame.
“First of all, I get it,” said Franklin. “We go for it early in the game and it’s a fourth-and-1, and it doesn’t work so it’s a bad decision. Later in the game, we have the ball on the goal line on fourth-and-1 and we don’t go for it, and it’s a bad decision.
“We have not been great at consistently running the ball in short down situations. I want to be aggressive early in the game, and we’re right on the fringe of (Davis’) range, and we’re right about his fringe of where he’s been consistent. … We take the points on the one-yard line and people feel like we should’ve gone for it, I get that.”
One of the worst aspects of Penn State’s offensive play is continued failure on third down.
The team is 15 for 60 on third down conversions, second to last in the country, and only converted four in 14 attempts on Saturday. Of those, seven were third-and-long situations (Penn State converted three), and three were third-and-short (Penn State converted one).
▪ Penn State, already missing five linebackers entering Saturday’s game including its three starters, has upped that number to seven injured, after Jake Cooper and Brandon Smith were banged up late. Corner Christian Campbell also left with an injury and scout teamer Jordan Smith played in his place (and snagged a crucial interception).
▪ For the second week in a row, a Penn State player was ejected for targeting.
This week, it was defensive tackle Curtis Cothran, who had not played in the team’s first four games due to an unspecified injury. Cothran was ejected in the third quarter so he has to miss a half of play in Penn State’s upcoming game against Maryland.
Minnesota’s Jaylen Waters also was ejected for a late cheap shot on kicker Joey Julius, after a kickoff turned obvious touchback. Players and Franklin alike said that the third-quarter hit was a “turning point” and “the nail in the coffin” for the team’s win.
Claeys told reporters after the game that he would address Waters’ behavior personally.