Housed: Michigan has way with Lions
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The Big House is too big for Penn State.
For the second time in three years, the Nittany Lions laid an egg against the Wolverines, losing 42-7, before 111,747 Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
Two years ago, the 49-10 loss was early in the third season of James Franklin’s tenure and was written off as somewhat understandable. In fact, it somehow became a springboard to the 2016 Big Ten championship.
This game, which sunk the Lions to 6-3 and was the least competitive game since the Lions’ last visit, had a far different feel and left the entire Penn State camp groping for answers.
“Obviously, defensively, they kicked our butts,” James Franklin said. “We did not play well today. We have to give Michigan credit. And we have to look ourselves in the mirror.”
There was no offense, more dropped passes, suspect special teams and highly questionable coaching by Franklin.
Let’s start there.
n Down 7-0, after video replays showed Trace McSorley scrambled for a first down, a questionable spot went unchallenged by Franklin, whose failure to call a timeout may have cost a valuable replay when the game was still a game.
Franklin called a runner’s slide “a judgment call” and said it’s not reviewable, but you’d think a timeout could have helped. He did acknowledge, the spot was “obviously a tough situation. That would have been a big pickup for us.”
n After Michigan went up 14-0, the Wolverines’ Jake Moody kicked the ball out of bounds, meaning PSU would have gotten it at the 35. Instead, Franklin accepted the penalty and made Michigan kick again. This time, the Lions took over at their 23 – a negative 12-yard decision.
“We had 39 yards of offense at that point,” he said. “I was looking to try to give us a spark. I was trying to get the ball into KJ (Hamler’s) hands.”
n Just before halftime, with Michigan out of timeouts, the Wolverines sacked Trace McSorley, forcing a fourth-and-17 at the Michigan 46. What does Franklin do? He calls timeout and then punts, giving UM possession with 54 seconds left.
Fortunately for Penn State, the Wolverines didn’t do anything with the possession, but it probably didn’t matter.
By then, Michigan had established itself as the far superior front on both sides of the ball so this game was not complicated to analyze.
Given that the offense couldn’t move the ball at all, it was a tribute to the Penn State defense that Michigan actually only led 14-0 with a minute left in the third quarter.
Their defense adjusted decently in the second quarter and temporarily kept the Lions in the game, but eventually broke down, too.
In addition to his poor game management, Franklin is presiding over a team that has not improved.
Even after coughing up what would have been an impressive victory against Ohio State in the final eight minutes, Franklin kept clinging to the notion that the Lions had improved from game-to-game — including against the Buckeyes.
Since, however, they’ve gone backwards and are repeating the same errors weekly.
Saturday, they had to call timeout on their first punt attempt because the play clock was about to expire. It marked the second straight week a timeout was used for a special teams play (last week it was a tardy field-goal attempt.)
Further, McSorley and Miles Sanders fumbled an exchange, resulting in a crucial fumble and lost possession for the second week in a row.
Franklin called Saturday’s environment “tough,” but he thought this team, with its senior quarterback and offensive line, would be OK.
“Did I think we would handle the noise better? Yes,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a challenge, and it was magnified.”
There’s no shame in losing to Michigan, which may end up winning the Big Ten and advancing to the College Football Playoff. But there is shame in getting housed so badly that you need a touchdown in the last two minutes just to avoid a shutout in a 35-point loss.
“A loss is never a good feeling, but this is probably the worst,” Sanders said. “We’re a way better team than we showed.”
As Lee Corso would say, “not so fast, my friends.”
Penn State has a major recovery effort on its hands. McSorley is banged up — re-inserting him with a 35-0 deficit was wrong, too — and the team has gone from CFP contention to three losses in five games with Wisconsin up next.
You can make a case that the Lions let Ohio State beat them twice, and if the same thing happens again this week, the program will limp into the offseason no matter how it fares the rest of the way.
Speaking of the Ohio State game, you now have to wonder the effect Franklin’s trumpeted pursuit of elitism speech had on the team, whether it put too much pressure on everybody or whether everybody just rolled their eyes.
Because it’s pretty clear since that night, the Nittany Lions have been anything but elite.
And here at the Big House, in one of college football’s greatest shrines, they sure picked a bad place to underscore that.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.