COLUMBUS, Ohio — On the plus side, it was a teachable moment. On the flip side, that moment felt like someone taking a tire iron to your shins.
“You’ve got to know that the other team, at that point, they’re in attack mode,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said after the No. 2 Nittany Lions fell 39-38 in soul-crushing fashion at No. 6 Ohio State, getting outscored 19-3 over the final 11 minutes and change.
“They’re pinning their ears back. They’re going to do whatever it takes. Scratch. Claw. Rip at the ball. Throw you down. For them, it’s always, at all costs, get a stop. I think that’s where the mentality comes in. As an offense, you need to have that mentality that matter what happens, no matter what we see, we’ve got to get the job done.”
The Buckeyes scratched. The Buckeyes clawed. The Buckeyes ripped at the ball. The Fighting Urbans pinned their ears back late and spent most the fourth quarter sending McSorley scrambling left, scrambling right — and basically scrambling for his life.
“Didn’t close out the game very well,” tight end Mike Gesicki shrugged.
The Lions ran 7 first-down plays in the fourth quarter, officially, not counting an incomplete pass wiped out by a holding call. They gained a total of 10 net yards on those plays, or 1.43 yards per pop.
What was it Dean Wormer said? Second-and-9 at the Horseshoe is no way to go through life, son.
“We didn’t play good enough [up front] … I didn’t call the game well enough,” coach James Franklin said after the game. “There’s enough blame to be spread all around.”
Blame the lack of a counter-adjustment to Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano pulling his defensive tackles late and instead rolling with four defensive ends up front in an effort to get more speed and more hands in McSorley’s face. Blame the offensive line splits getting, as Franklin noted, tighter and tighter, allowing said defensive ends less real estate to cover in order to harass No. 9.
Blame the injury to left tackle Ryan Bates. Blame the blocked punt and the Lions’ inability to buck up defensively after the special teams roof caved in.
Penn State goes conservative and cost themselves game. Never fails
— Greg Olsen (@gregolsen88) October 28, 2017
Amen. The buck ultimately stops in two places, though: Up front — the offensive and defensive lines — and at the top.
A ‘4-minute mentality,’ Franklin called it.
‘We go out there and we [get] a few first downs, the game’s over.’
— Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki after a 39-38 loss at Ohio State
When the Buckeyes demanded the Lions try to channel their inner Wisconsin, Penn State responded with a blank stare.
Or a shrug.
Or a draw play.
The Lions ran the ball 10 times in the final 15 minutes — for 14 net yards. Star tailback Saquon Barkley’s fourth-quarter line: 7 touches, negative-8 yards.
But on the road, against like-for-like talent, the low man wins.
Big Game James has taken this program a long way, the right way. The Lions (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) are reckless and loose and fun and exciting as hell, when things are right.
But on the rare occasion when they get knocked back a few steps, the strength and confidence of the response, well — that’s still anyone’s guess.
Penn State football feels like a driver who can win the Indy 500 blindfolded.
But we’re still not sure if said driver actually knows how to change a tire.
Especially against a peer program — think USC in the Rose Bowl in January, think the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Especially when pinned against precedent. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer hadn’t lost coming off a bye week since 2001, when he was in charge of Bowling Green. He entered the weekend with a 21-1 career mark (.955) in games following a bye week, including a run of 20 victories in a row.
Make that 21 consecutive now.
“I think, for us, knowing that we can kind of come back and bounce back from this, it doesn’t make it hurt as much as [the Rose Bowl],” McSorley mused. “But obviously, it’s similar [type of] losses. It still hurts pretty bad.”
Pasadena stunk. This stunk. They were close. So, so, sooooo damn close. If there’s a common theme in the only Penn State football setbacks of the past 10 months, it’s that sometimes the line between “great” and “really, really good” when two heavyweights start swinging is who’s got legs in the final three rounds of the fight.
“We go out there and we [get] a few first downs, the game’s over,” Gesicki said.
“We weren’t able to do that. We played an extremely physical front seven and they showed why they’re the best in the country [in] their 4-minute situations.”
Sometimes the only the lessons that stick are the ones learned the hard way. And as tire irons go, they don’t come much harder than this.