Two weeks ago, Trace McSorley made an impassioned plea to his teammates — one of those run-through-a-brick-wall kind of statements, one that was necessary for the Nittany Lions to push on after a gutting one-point loss to Ohio State.
“Let yourself feel every ounce of pain,” McSorley bellowed in a silent Penn State locker room. “Take all that pain and turn it into fire, and we’re going to the top.”
The Nittany Lions might have heard McSorley, but they didn’t listen. In its 21-17 loss to Michigan State — one that all but dashes any hope at making the College Football Playoff, at playing for a national title — Penn State fell flat. The Nittany Lions were listless. Emotionally and physically, in all three phases.
Unlike two weekends ago, when the Nittany Lions arguably should have beaten Ohio State, they didn’t play well enough to win on Saturday. They surely didn’t play like a team worthy of playoff consideration. And now they have to rally.
“Right now is the time we’re really going to figure out the kind of team we have,” McSorley said. “It’s easy when you have one loss and you can still talk about things you still maybe have to look forward to. But when you go through back-to-back losses, tough situations, at home, and we’re in the Big Ten schedule with a lot more Big Ten games to play, we’ve got to come together.”
If they don’t, well, this season could get worse than Penn State’s infamous fourth-and-5 play call. After a trip to Indiana, the Nittany Lions host Iowa, travel to Michigan and welcome Wisconsin. The Hawkeyes, Wolverines and Badgers will all likely be ranked for those games.
Aside from that meeting in Ann Arbor, Penn State is favored in the rest of its games, per ESPN’s Football Power Index. Thing is, Penn State was favored by 13.5 points against Michigan State, and it became the first Nittany Lions team since 2000 to lose at home as two-touchdown favorites. Those projections don’t mean anything if the Nittany Lions play like they did against Michigan State.
Penn State committed six costly penalties, including an unsportsmanlike conduct by CJ Thorpe that handed Michigan State points before halftime. McSorley accounted for 229 total yards, his lowest mark in his last 17 Big Ten games. Miles Sanders managed only 16 yards in the second half after gashing the nation’s top rush defense early. Jake Pinegar missed a chip-shot field goal. The return team allowed a 26-yard fake punt. Garrett Taylor and Amani Oruwariye dropped fourth-quarter interceptions.
And, perhaps worst of all, the Nittany Lion offense sputtered like it was trapped in 2015. McSorley, Sanders, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and company had late opportunities to ice the game — to send the Spartans home with a loss. And they couldn’t do it.
With 5:19 to go, up 17-14 after a failed fake field goal by Michigan State, all Penn State had to do was get three first downs, and it was over. The Nittany Lions got one.
They weren’t burned, though. Michigan State punted with 1:46 remaining in regulation. One first down. That’s all it took. Ten yards. Gain of three, loss of one, gain of five. It wasn’t enough.
“I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth for two weeks, and we didn’t execute,” Sanders said. “We didn’t play to our standard.”
Added Penn State head coach James Franklin: “We let them stay in the game.”
But with all the mistakes Penn State made, you could look at it the other way around. Against a program that boasts four 10-win seasons since 2013, an error-filled performance on offense, defense and specials teams won’t cut it.
Again, the Nittany Lions led in the fourth quarter of a single-digit loss. Add it to the tally. Now, Penn State’s last five losses have been by a combined 12 points.
When asked about that number, about the trend of late-game collapse, Franklin — who owns a 3-11 record against Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan — had the following to say:
“Even though they’re painful, I’d rather be in a situation that we lost five games by 12 points than like at other places, where they’re trying to figure out how to not lose games by larger margins. Our margin of error is small. Our margin of defeat is small. We have to get all those little things corrected.”
In back-to-back press conferences, Franklin brought up “the little things.” But two weeks ago, the coach said it with fire. He went viral with declarations about what’s necessary to go from great to elite. And agree or not with the premise, there was passion behind it.
After Saturday’s game, everyone from Franklin to McSorley was despondent. Redshirt junior Shareef Miller “zoned out” walking off the field, gazing ahead at no one in particular, stunned. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer took a knee before the postgame alma mater, covered his face with a hat and shed a tear. And the student section offered a half-hearted golf clap as the Nittany Lions exited through the tunnel.
For a team and fan base that had national title dreams in August, 2018 isn’t the year. Even still, McSorley knows the Nittany Lions’ season isn’t over.
“We need to be stronger now more than ever,” the fifth-year senior said. “It’s playing for each other, loving each other. We can’t get defensive. We can’t start pointing fingers. We can’t start looking at anything but ourselves.”