Nittany Lines

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Penn State’s 49-10 loss to No. 4 Michigan

Penn State's Jordan Smith and Garrett Sickels try to stop Michigan running back Chris Evans during the Saturday, September 24, 2016 game at Michigan Stadium. Michigan won, 49-10.
Penn State's Jordan Smith and Garrett Sickels try to stop Michigan running back Chris Evans during the Saturday, September 24, 2016 game at Michigan Stadium. Michigan won, 49-10.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley probably summed it up best for his whole team after Saturday’s 49-10 loss to No. 4 Michigan: He felt embarrassed.

Asked whether he saw any bright spots within the game, the redshirt sophomore said, “I don’t know. It’s tough to take any positives from that.”

The Good

A brief section this week, but it still exists thanks mostly to two Penn State specialists.

Freshman punter Blake Gillikin proved well-prepared for his first-ever Big Ten test.

Gillikin’s first punt was impressive in length — he was pinned in his own end zone after a Penn State three-and-out and booted the ball 61 yards — but it was returned by Jabrill Peppers for 53 yards.

On his next attempt, with Peppers again lined up to return, Gillikin sent the ball toward the sideline hashmark, forcing Peppers out of bounds as he made the catch. From then on, the prolific athlete only managed one more punt return yard in six total punts.

Gillikin ranks No. 16 in the nation in net punting with an average of 45 yards per kick.

▪ Kickoff man Joey Julius laid the lumber for his second huge hit in three weeks, this time on returner Jourdan Lewis.

Julius once again went viral on Twitter, even spurred by Lewis himself, who tweeted a video of the hit and, more prominently, the whiffed block by Peppers that led to it.

▪ Within the battered, thin linebacker unit, true freshman Cam Brown saw his first minutes at the position and recorded 10 tackles, the second-most on the team.

▪ A jet-sweep play that had fooled Penn State against both Pitt and Temple did not get defensive end Torrence Brown to bite on Saturday. Brown read the first-quarter play perfectly and wrapped up Michigan’s Eddie McDoom for a loss.

The Bad

Not much went right for Penn State on Saturday.

By halftime, the Wolverines led 28-0 behind 260 yards of offense to Penn State’s 50. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley had been sacked five times (he took six sacks throughout), and four came on third downs.

And by the game’s end, Michigan had converted on 11 of 16 third downs (Penn State had two in 12 attempts), racked up 515 yards of offense to Penn State’s 199, had 13 tackles for loss to force 38 Penn State yards-lost on the ground. Its defensive line held the Nittany Lions to 78 net rushing yards (59 of which were running back Saquon Barkley’s), and its secondary held Penn State to 121 passing yards (77 of which were also Barkley’s).

▪ Penn State was 0 for 4 on third-and-longs, 1-for-4 on third-and-short distance, and one of its two conversions came by penalty.

▪ Tackling again was huge issue for the Nittany Lions, who, according to Pro Football Focus, entered the game with 37 missed tackles through three games. Penn State missed another 15 tackles throughout Saturday’s game, including three would-be sacks on quarterback Wilton Speight. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kevin Givens accounted for two misses as Speight easily shook him on the run.

▪ Penn State allowed over 300 rushing yards for the second time in four games. A rotation of Michigan backs racked up 326 net rushing yards and the Nittany Lions’ defensive line got almost no pushback, forcing only 14 yards lost on the ground. A combination of backs in De’Veon Smith, fullback Karan Higdon, Ty Isaac and Chris Evens rushed for almost seven yards per carry. Penn State ranks No. 104 in the country in rushing defense with an average of 213.75 yards allowed per game and 12 rushing touchdowns allowed.

▪ Michigan recorded 13 tackles for loss for 45 yards.

▪ Franklin showed poor playcalling judgment in the third quarter on fourth-and-two. Penn State was down 28-0 and just a yard outside the red zone. The head coach sent out his kicking unit, and then called a time out — reasoning that, the head coach admitted later, should have been in preparation to send the offense back out to go for the touchdown.

Instead, the time out was burned and Penn State kicked anyway, settling for three points.

▪ In the second quarter, linebacker Brandon Smith was called for targeting and then ejected. The call was controversial, drawing viral national criticism from pundits and former players alike — even on the Michigan side. Smith appeared to be reaching for the ball and tracking it with his eyes and chin, and contact looked incidental. However, college football’s targeting rules don’t allow for “intent,” something Franklin tried to argue with officials before Smith was ejected.

The Ugly

Once Smith, the third-string middle linebacker and former walk-on fullback, left the game, fourth-string (also a former walk-on) Jan Johnson entered the game. Johnson played a few series’ before injuring his knee. He is out for the season, Franklin announced after the game.

Penn State’s linebacker situation has sunk from bad to worse through three weeks. Starting middle linebacker Jason Cabinda is out with a hand injury, starting strong side linebacker Brandon Bell is out with a leg injury and starting weak side linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White is out for the season with another knee injury. Smith had filled in once Wartman-White, who shifted to the middle in Cabinda’s absence, got hurt in Penn State’s win over Temple in week three.

Bell and Cabinda are expected to return, but their timeline is unknown. Without their’s and Wartman-White’s 63 combined starts, the second tier is left to Smith and sophomores Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen. Brown also saw time on Saturday and is a viable (albeit young) future option, and otherwise Penn State has moved safety Koa Farmer back to linebacker and shifted former running back Johnathan Thomas into the position as well.

Von Walker, who is listed as a linebacker on the team’s depth chart, has played most of his minutes on special teams.

It will affect the way the unit practices, and will exacerbate already glaring tackling issues as the team will likely not go full-speed in the interest of preserving its healthy players.

▪ The start of Saturday’s game set the tone for its entirety.

Penn State opened on offense, but was flagged on back-to-back penalties out of the gate. McSorley was sacked twice and pushed back to the 1-yard line as the Nittany Lions went three-and-out. Gillikin’s 61-yard punt was bobbled a bit by Peppers, who still managed to return it 53 yards, and three minutes later the Wolverines scored.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue