Neil Rudel on PSU: Nittany Lions do their part to aid Minnesota’s effort
MINNEAPOLIS — The team that deserved to win here did.
In handing the Nittany Lions their first loss of the season, 31-26, while remaining unbeaten itself, Minnesota was the better team Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium and certainly the more worthy of victory.
And Penn State knew it.
“The game played out the way they wanted it to play out,” James Franklin said. “We started poorly. In the first half, we had interceptions, blown coverages, missed tackles.”
“They executed way better than us,” KJ Hamler said.
Penn State was gouged for 199 yards in the first quarter, and Minnesota was unstoppable through the air as the Lions’ secondary surrendered 339 yards on 18 completions in just 20 attempts.
It was passing efficiency at its finest, and on the other side, Penn State — other than Hamler and Pat Freiermuth, with seven receptions each — was intercepted three times, dropped five passes and could not function in the clutch.
The Lions managed three touchdowns, but on five other occasions, it advanced to or inside the Minnesota 25 and came away with a mere six points on two field goals.
Sean Clifford’s Cinderella season finally turned into a pumpkin — a smashed pumpkin — as he was picked off once in the end zone (which sealed the game) and once at the Minnesota 2 when he threw the ball up for grabs.
And when Clifford needed more help from his offensive braintrust, it was tentative and ineffective.
The Lions took a delay of game on third-and-3 at the Minnesota 10 when a touchdown would have tied the game at 14. Instead, they settled for a field goal.
“There could have been communication errors where people weren’t on the same page,” senior guard Steven Gonzalez said.
After Clifford hit Freiermuth with a 20-yard pass to the Gophers’ 7 with 20 seconds left in the first half, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne ordered a spike, which cost the Lions a valuable down and led to a field goal.
Franklin said he should have called timeout before the spike and was critical of the Lions’ red-zone approach.
“We’ve been great in the red zone,” he said. “We work very hard (on it). Being on the road, dealing with the noise, you have got to have a sense of urgency and get calls in quickly. For whatever reason, we weren’t doing it.”
Franklin said he was prepared to call timeout “so many times” as he saw the play clock about to expire “and we’d snap it with one second (left). We were like that all day long. We took too long to adjust and settle our guys down on the road.”
The troubles were magnified when Franklin went for a 2-point conversion, which failed, after cutting the deficit to 24-19 with 4:05 remaining in the third quarter.
He defended it, saying his coaches were in agreement.
“We have the 2-point chart, like everybody does,” he said. “It made sense to go for it. Felt it was the right call in that situation. If it works, everybody thinks it’s a good call.”
Minnesota, meanwhile, surprised Penn State by emphasizing the pass game as the Gophers made better use of the open date both teams had.
“Who would have thought going into this game that we would have led them in rushing and they would have led in passing at the half?” Franklin said.
Penn State’s defense played better as the game unfolded, yielding just one second-half touchdown, but the first-half hole of allowing 24 points was too much for the offense to overcome.
The Lions arguably got away from their run or at least Journey Brown’s effective edge rushes, and began relying too heavily on Clifford.
Penn State averaged 6.7 yards per rush (compared with Minnesota’s 3.0), but Rahne ordered up 44 passes to 29 runs.
That’s typically a recipe for defeat, and that’s exactly what happened.
It didn’t help that the team’s best player, linebacker Micah Parsons, was benched for the first series for what ABC called “behavior modification.” Or that defensive tackle Antonio Shelton was serving a deserved one-game suspension for spitting on a Michigan State player in the Lions’ last game.
“I felt like we had a good week of practice, and we were ready,” defensive tackle Rob Windsor said.
The scoreboard said otherwise, and though Penn State wakes up 8-1 this morning — still better than almost everybody thought it would be — getting outplayed and outprepared could linger.
“We can’t let this loss beat us twice,” Windsor said.
“There have been times we haven’t moved on from losses,” Franklin said.
Saturday, at least from this vantage point, Penn State contributed to its demise by not moving on as well as it should have from its wins.
Neil Rudel can be reached at 814-946-7527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.