James Franklin stood, arms crossed and eyes watering, without saying a word at the 50-yard line. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour patted him on the back as Ohio State players sprinted to the north end zone, celebrating with their traveling party, the only ones making noise among a Beaver Stadium crowd stunned to its core.
For the second time in as many seasons, the Nittany Lions lost to Ohio State by one point. One single point. This time at home, with a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter.
It was an almost incomprehensible finish — one highlighted by questionable play-calling, shoddy time management and terrible tackling. One that put a College Football Playoff berth out of the Nittany Lions’ control. One that had Franklin evaluating his organization in the moment, calling Penn State a “great program” but not an “elite” one. Ultimately, not one that he or Penn State fans want or expect.
“We will no longer be comfortable being great. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to grow from this. And we’re going to find a way to make that next step as a program,” Franklin said, slamming the media room dais with both hands for emphasis at various times throughout his press conference. “Because we’ve been knocking at the door for long enough. ... We are going to get this done. I give you my word. We are going to find a way to take the next step.”
The thing is, as Franklin alluded, the Nittany Lions have been here before. Recently.
In the Rose Bowl, Penn State led Southern California by 14 midway through the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions lost by three.
Last season at Ohio State, the Nittany Lions led by 15 entering the fourth quarter. They lost by one. A week later, Franklin’s squad lost in the fourth quarter at Michigan State.
And Saturday — in a game where Trace McSorley snapped a school record with 461 yards of total offense — Penn State owned a 26-14 lead with eight minutes left. And it happened again. The pass-rush couldn’t get to Dwayne Haskins, and those in the second level couldn’t tackle in space. The clock management — burning two timeouts on a fourth-and-5 with 1:22 left and leaving themselves no chance to get the ball back — was poor. The play-calling on fourth-and-5 with the game on the line? Well, check Twitter to see how that went over.
In short, the little things. The things that don’t really matter when pummeling Pitt by 45 points or embarrassing Illinois or routing Rutgers. The things that kept Penn State out of playoff contention in 2017, and the things that might do the same this year.
But McSorley — who offered an impassioned plea to his teammates, along with fellow captain Nick Scott, in the postgame locker room — doesn’t intend on letting that happen. Not in his fifth and final year. Not when he’s been through this before.
“We let a one-point loss barrel into the next week, and then we had a three-point loss,” McSorley said of last year’s hangover following Penn State’s crushing defeat in Columbus. “You can’t let a tough loss leave you spiraling down even more. ... We lived that once, and we can’t do that again.”
The Nittany Lions heard McSorley’s message. They heard Franklin’s message. They don’t want a repeat of 2017, either.
“This is only a bump in the road,” wideout Juwan Johnson said. “We’ll be back.”
Added senior linebacker Koa Farmer: “We can’t let this define our season.”
Penn State now has a bye week. And after it, the Nittany Lions play Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin in a four-week span. And they play Iowa. And the game against the Wolverines is at the Big House, where Franklin and Penn State were pounded 49-10 two years ago.
Penn State is a different program now than what it was back then. But compared to a year ago, the Nittany Lions have seemingly hit a wall.
This offseason, sitting in the Lasch Building on an April afternoon, McSorley talked about taking care of the little things. He said the month after the 2017 season made him realize how close — five or six points, really — the Nittany Lions were to a College Football Playoff berth. And now, after collapsing against the Buckeyes, Penn State is faced with a similar situation.
If the Nittany Lions want to rebound — if they want to send McSorley and the seniors out with something more than an at-large New Year’s Six bowl, with something “elite” — Franklin’s team needs to buckle down.
Because, as the coach acknowledged, Penn State fans, players and staff members are sick of coming close and faltering when it matters.
“We haven’t broken through with these types of programs,” Franklin said, frustrated, voice raising every syllable. “I can sit here and say it’s a moral victory and all that because we lost to a higher ranked team by one point. No. It’s not good enough. ... We have let little things slip by, and that ain’t happening. Because those little things that we let slip by, that’s one point last year and that’s one point this year. It’s not happening anymore. It’s not happening anymore. You guys thought I was a psychopath in the past? You have no idea.
“Ultimately, I’m responsible. I’m going to make sure it gets done, no matter what.”