Penn State Football

Analyzing Penn State’s 21-17 loss to Michigan State: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Coach James Franklin explains what went wrong in Penn State’s loss to Michigan State

Penn State football coach James Franklin explains what went wrong in the Nittany Lions' 21-17 loss to Michigan State on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018 at Beaver Stadium.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin explains what went wrong in the Nittany Lions' 21-17 loss to Michigan State on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018 at Beaver Stadium.

During a TV timeout Saturday, the Beaver Stadium PA announcer read out-of-town scores, and for maybe the first time in Happy Valley history, 100,000 Nittany Lion fans cheered for their in-state rival.

“In the fourth quarter, Pitt 14, Notre Dame 12.”

Pitt couldn’t hold onto that two-point lead, falling short in its upset bid against the Fighting Irish. But a number of other games went the Nittany Lions’ way Saturday. Other than, you know, the one they played in.

LSU throttled No. 2 Georgia, 36-16. Unranked Iowa State upset No. 6 West Virginia, 30-14. And No. 7 Washington fell to Oregon in overtime, 30-27.

All the Nittany Lions had to do was win. If the 13.5-point favorites took care of business, they’d likely move up to No. 6 in the AP Poll. Instead, they fell back 10 spots to No. 18.

That adds a little more sting to an already depressing loss for the Nittany Lions.

A friendly reminder: The weekly Good, Bad and Ugly shines light on what happened that didn’t receive attention in the CDT’s postgame coverage. Where the Nittany Lions go from here, why the Nittany Lions didn’t take shots downfield and who earned player of the game have already been addressed.


  • On a Wednesday morning conference call, Miles Sanders told reporters that the Nittany Lions would run at Michigan State and, with patience, they would “split one.” Well, Sanders split two. Against the nation’s top rush defense — a unit that had yet to allow a rush of 20 yards or more — Saquon Barkley’s successor looked like No. 26. Sanders ripped off a 78-yard run through the heart of Michigan State’s defense and later recorded a 48-yarder, which was arguably more impressive. Sanders broke three tackles and then with two Spartans closing in on him, he hit the jump cut, leaving both grasping at air. In the first half, Sanders had eight carries for 146 yards. In Michigan State’s previous 16 quarters, Sparty allowed 144 yards on 103 attempts.

  • Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke felt the pressure. The Nittany Lions recorded a season-high five quarterback hurries and sacked Lewerke three times. Defensive end Shareef Miller — who played lights out against Ohio State — did the same Saturday. Sophomore Yetur Gross-Matos chipped in 2.5 tackles for loss, including a suffocation of Lewerke on an option keeper. And 6-foot-5 linebacker Cam Brown, while it doesn’t show in the stat sheet, bombarded the Michigan State offensive line with length and caused problems.
  • It’s worth noting that Trace McSorley became Penn State’s all-time leader in passing yards, jumping Christian Hackenberg with a six-yard completion to Pat Freiermuth in the first quarter. Two plays later, Sanders ripped off his 78-yard run, and McSorley followed that up with a touchdown toss to KJ Hamler. It gave the Nittany Lions an early 7-0 lead, and with the record in-hand, it felt like Penn State had some mojo. That didn’t hold up.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley warms up for the homecoming game against Michigan State on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. Abby Drey


  • While offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne failed to put him in the best position to succeed, it wasn’t McSorley’s day. On Penn State’s first drive, the Nittany Lions rolled to Michigan State’s 33-yard line. Then, the quarterback tried to do too much, stepped up in the pocket to throw downfield and had the ball batted out of his hand and recovered for a turnover. Later, with less than two minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the captain stepped out of bounds on a third-down run, stopping the clock for Michigan State instead of forcing them to call timeout. The Spartans ended up not needing the timeout in their eight-play, 78-yard touchdown march, but still a couple rookie mistakes by the fifth-year senior.
  • “They are willing to run a fake at any time,” Franklin said of Michigan State at his Tuesday press conference. “We have all these things cut up. Obviously, we are showing them to our players to get prepared because they have a history of doing these things.” The Nittany Lions clearly weren’t prepared well enough. In the first quarter — facing a fourth-and-6 at their own 34-yard line — Spartans coach Mark Dantonio dialed up a fake punt, and it worked. Connor Heyward ran free for a 26-yard gain, giving life to Michigan State’s sideline. Four plays later, the Spartans were in the end zone. That momentum-shifting fake falls on first-year special teams coordinator Phil Galiano.
  • Thought the end-zone fade left with Bill O’Brien back in 2013? Think again. On third-and-goal at Michigan State’s 2-yard line, Rahne called a fade to Juwan Johnson in the corner of the end zone. Johnson, who has struggled this year, didn’t create separation, and McSorley put it too high. It predictably fell incomplete. For any team — college or pro — the fade is an unimaginative, low probability playcall. In Penn State’s case, its base zone read would have been a better decision. Anything would have been better. You can at least rationalize why O’Brien ran it so frequently. He had jump-ball machine and current Chicago Bears star Allen Robinson on the receiving end. And even that rarely worked. Unless the Nittany Lions recruit the second-coming of Dez Bryant, the fade should be thrown out of their playbook completely.

Michigan State cornerback Justin Layne stops Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson from making a catch in the endzone during the game on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. Abby Drey


  • Amani Oruwariye had a rough final drive. A game-clinching interception slipped through his hands, and on Michigan State’s winning touchdown, he got turned around by wideout Felton Davis III. To be fair, Oruwariye didn’t have safety help. Garrett Taylor came crashing down into the box, expecting a run on third-and-2. Davis III adjusted beautifully to a purposefully underthrown ball by Lewerke, and it left Oruwariye on the ground. Walking off the field, Franklin told Oruwariye to keep his head held high. The corner played well leading up to that drive. But he was a part of a defense that couldn’t close things out at the end.
  • True freshman Jake Pinegar is struggling mightily in his first year at the college level. He’s 4 of 8 on the year and a miss from 37 yards out loomed large against Michigan State. Two weeks ago, Franklin didn’t trust Pinegar with a 41-yard attempt against Ohio State, instead trotting his offense out on the field for a failed fourth-and-1 try. Franklin addressed the placekicker situation after the game: “Obviously, we’re not kicking the way we need to kick. ... We’ll revisit that. We’ll take a hard look at it. Our percentages in practice are really good, but that’s not showing up on game day.”
  • Back on Feb. 1, 2017, when Franklin addressed his newly-signed recruiting class, the coach lauded C.J. Thorpe’s “really nasty demeanor.” That attitude showed up in the worst way possible Saturday. After seemingly being warned by the officials on the previous play, Thorpe was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty following a stopped third-and-goal run from Penn State’s 2-yard line. The second-quarter stand was significant, until Thorpe’s after-the-play aggression gave Sparty a first down and eventual touchdown. Franklin gave Thorpe an earful on the sideline, and rightfully so. It was a critical mistake by the redshirt freshman.