Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley spoke softly Saturday night in addressing what he termed “the deciding factor of the game” — the fourth-and-5 call that sent a record-breaking Beaver Stadium crowd for the exits.
Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne dialed up the play with less than 90 seconds remaining in regulation. Then Penn State called a timeout. Then Ohio State. Then Penn State again.
Three timeouts later, on the Ohio State 43-yard line, the Nittany Lions stuck with that same original playcall — which resulted in McSorley handing the ball off to Miles Sanders on a run that went nowhere and puzzled the college football world. Penn State’s players walked off the field, stunned, in a 27-26 loss to the Buckeyes.
“Fourth-and-5, I know exactly what Coach Rahne saw,” said McSorley, who accounted for 461 total yards and 94 percent of the offense. “I saw the same thing. The play was there to be made; we just didn’t make the play.
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“They did a good job; they ran a twist to be able to get in the backfield quickly. We weren’t able to pick up that twist, and they were able to hit Miles right when he got the handoff and got him down.”
It’s a scenario that will likely replay in both Rahne’s and McSorley’s minds throughout the bye week: Why not pass? Why not change up the play after those timeouts? Why not keep it in McSorley’s hands? And why not save the timeouts in case the run did fall short?
“We believed that they’d probably think we were passing it,” Sanders said, “but try to get the ball in my hands and get the first down. But they really came to play that play; didn’t get the job done.”
It’s a play that will almost certainly live on in infamy in Happy Valley. With the playclock at two seconds, McSorley barely got the snap off and Sanders was hit almost instantly by Ohio State’s Chase Young for a two-yard loss.
It’s not clear where the miscommunication started, but right tackle Will Fries, who earned a spot last week on Pro Football Focus’ National Team of the Week, ended up blocking no one. And Young went through the A gap, between the center and right guard, from his position on the outside.
Head coach James Franklin tried to put the blame on himself after the game.
“They changed the looks and we called a timeout and had some discussions,” Franklin said. “We obviously didn’t make the right call in that situation. That’s on me, nobody else. That’s on me. We didn’t make the right call in the situation. Obviously, it didn’t work. We’ve called something similar like that in other situations and it broke for a big play, but that’s on us. That’s on me.”
Said McSorley: “I think we had run it once before; it was something we had talked about during the week.”
The largest crowd in Penn State history — 110,889 — stood quiet and deflated following the play. Alumni and fans alike took to Twitter to express their dismay. Some went so far as to say it was the worst Penn State playcall since Joe Paterno decided to attempt a field goal on Alabama’s 1-yard line in 1989. That kick was blocked.
“Pretty simple what happened,” former defensive tackle Brandon Noble wrote. “Terrible call.”
Unsurprisingly, players defended their coaches after the game. And Franklin defended his players. McSorley said he was OK with the call.
“It was Coach’s decision, and I agreed with what he said,” McSorley reiterated. “We just didn’t make the play.”
McSorley threw for 286 yards and ran for a career-high 175 yards. Sanders finished the game with 16 carries for 43 yards.
The playcall wasn’t the only curious one Saturday. On another fourth-and-5 play on the OSU 37-yard line, earlier in the fourth quarter, Penn State opted to punt. (“Yes, after the fact, we probably should have went for it,” Franklin said.) In the third quarter, trailing 14-13, Penn State threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-1 on the OSU 24 instead of attempting a field goal and going for the lead.
Frustration and disappointment were painted afterward on the faces of Penn State’s players, who competed in front of an electric crowd Saturday night that had the stadium shaking 20 minutes before kickoff. McSorley was dressed in white sneakers, white pants and a white polo shirt at his press conference. Wideout Juwan Johnson kept his answers short and succinct.
“It’s just one of those, fourth-and-5, that you just wish you could have and we didn’t get it,” Johnson said.
“There’s nothing more you can say about it.”