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The Return of Defense and Running the Ball: 2018 Penn State Football in Review

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The passing game broke, so the Lions had to grind out those wins.

Ohio State v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

When I look back at Penn State’s 2018 season, the first thing I think of is that Ohio State game. After taking a 12-point lead on a Miles Sanders touchdown run with eight minutes to play in the game, the Nittany Lions allowed two straight Ohio State touchdown drives and ended up losing by a point. Penn State got the ball back with two minutes left and a chance to win, but the drive sputtered out when James Franklin or offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne — whomever you want to blame — called a run-pass option on 4th-and-5 and Sanders was gobbled up by Chase Young to end the game.

Everyone hates the call, but a lot of Penn State’s yards that night had come on similar plays in which Trace McSorley kept the ball and ripped off chunks of yardage. In the passing game, he was only completing 50 percent of his throws. Calling for an option wasn’t the craziest idea ever, but a deep drop that gave McSorley a chance to scramble might have been a better choice.

Besides, we all knew Ohio State was eventually going to win after Dwayne Haskins connected with Binjimen Victor for his first touchdown pass of the fourth quarter. Penn State was still up 12 at the time, and its defense had been playing great in the second half. That all changed when Haskins found himself under pressure on first down and threw a risky ball in the middle of the field. Somehow, not only did Victor come down with the ball, but all three Penn State defensive backs in the area failed to bring him down. It was a miraculous play that allowed Ohio State to avert disaster for three more weeks.

It turns out that the Buckeyes weren’t the Playoff contender that we thought they were, but neither were the Nittany Lions. After the dramatic home loss to Ohio State, Franklin’s team lost again to a Michigan State team that scored over 20 points in only four Big Ten games this season. Penn State’s offense just wasn’t the same explosive unit that it was in 2016 and 2017.

Without his old offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and blue-chip athletes Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki, McSorley was exposed as a quarterback with a mediocre arm who has trouble throwing his receivers open. KJ Hamler had a breakout campaign and showed off his remarkable speed, and tight end Pat Freiermuth proved to be a threat in the red zone, but wide receivers Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins were major letdowns in a season that was supposed to see McSorley and the offense light up the scoreboard.

Despite the struggles on offense, Penn State won six Big Ten games and nine overall. Part of that is because of the weakness of the schedule, and part of that is because Penn State adjusted and became a “grind it out” team with its defense and running game. West Division foes Iowa and Wisconsin looked like they could be threats, but they were neutralized by quarterback issues. Wisconsin’s backup Jack Coan was a complete non-factor with his three yards per throw, and that forced Jonathan Taylor to try to do everything himself. In the Iowa game, Nate Stanley had only of his worst games of the season and threw a crucial interception late that saved Penn State from another disappointing home loss.

It’s tough for quarterbacks to function properly when they’re being hounded by pass rushers like Yetur Gross-Matos, who led the Lions with eight sacks as a sophomore and figures to be an even bigger factor on defense this autumn. The linebackers were also better than expected thanks to Micah Parsons stepping up and leading the team in tackles as a freshman. In the secondary, Amani Oruwariye made a couple of crucial misplays against Ohio State and Michigan State, but he was otherwise very reliable and was the only Penn State player named to the First Team All-Big Ten defense.

Penn State had to rely on its defense often down the stretch, but in the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky, Franklin should have let his offense try to win the game. The Lions trailed 27-7 after three quarters, but they scored two quick touchdowns and were driving for a third with four minutes left in the game. Faced with 4th-and-7 from the UK 14-yard line, Franklin opted for the field goal, and Penn State didn’t get the ball back until there was a single second remaining on the clock.

It was another situation in which the ball should have been in McSorley’s hands even though he had struggled for most of the game. The funny thing is that on 3rd-and-10 earlier in the drive, McSorley handed to Sanders for a 13-yard gain. It was the same line of thinking that was heavily criticized in the Ohio State loss, and yet here it led to a first down in a critical spot.

The fact that Penn State had three losses go down to the wire doesn’t mean much when the fourth loss was a blowout at the hands of Michigan. Just like when Ohio State lost to Purdue and when Michigan lost to Ohio State, the embarrassing defeat in Ann Arbor was proof enough that Penn State wasn’t a national title contender. Fans are hoping that the next time the Lions have a chance to win the Big Ten that Franklin makes better decisions in the fourth quarter.