STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The margin of error in big-time college football, particularly in the loaded East Division of the Big Ten, is small, and no one knows that better than James Franklin.
“When you look at our side of the conference, maybe one of the better sides of the conference in college football, you can pick out four to six plays each game and, for most teams and most people, that’s going to determine your success,” the Penn State coach said Saturday after his team suffered its fourth loss in its last five games, 21-17, to Michigan at Beaver Stadium.
“We will find a way to make those six plays per game, especially the way we’re playing on defense. You have a chance to get wins against really good teams, and we have not made those six plays a game consistently enough in the season.”
The defeat knocks the Nittany Lions (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) out of the AP top 25 and likely drops them to a lower-status bowl game. They will have to win one of their last two games, Saturday at home against Rutgers or at Michigan State on Nov. 27, to finish above .500 in the regular season.
Their four losses have been by a total margin of 18 points, three of them by one score. The win by the Wolverines (9-1, 6-1) marked the Lions’ ninth consecutive defeat to a top-10 opponent dating back to the 2017 Rose Bowl, the completion of Franklin’s third season as head coach. Penn State has been ranked in the top 25 for all nine.
The Nittany Lions’ problems — a lack of execution, difficulty in scoring touchdowns in the red zone, head-scratching calls — all lead to an inability to finish games.
It happened at Iowa, where the Hawkeyes scored the last 10 points while the Penn State offense struggled following an injury to quarterback Sean Clifford. It happened at home against Illinois when the Lions were held scoreless for the final 41-plus minutes of regulation and went 1-of-7 on two-point conversions in the brutal nine-overtime defeat.
And Saturday, the frustrating failures continued. Penn State dominated the first half, but could manage only a pair of field goals. It scored just one touchdown as Clifford was under siege from the Michigan pass rush throughout the cold, windy day, getting sacked seven times and taking several other hard hits.
The Lions left anywhere from 10 to 14 points on the field, including a missed 43-yard field-goal try in the third quarter and having to settle for a field goal following a fumble recovery at the Michigan 16 with just under six minutes to play.
“It’s very disappointing knowing we should have closed,” said defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, the Temple transfer who had two sacks and forced the fourth-quarter fumble. “We played good complementary football. It’s why we’re so disappointed we fell short.
“It’s three or four plays. Those things keep occurring. Those are the main reasons why we lost the game. Those are some of the plays that you have to have if we want to be where we want to be. It keeps hurting us as a team.”
Perhaps the most baffling call all day came on Penn State’s second possession of the game when Franklin called a fake field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Michigan 2 — a backward pass from holder Rafael Checa to kicker Jordan Stout — instead of leaving his offense on the field to grind out the final 6 feet.
It didn’t go well. Checa’s pass was slightly behind Stout, who was cornered by the Wolverines, tried to reverse his field and fumbled, turning the ball over to the visitors at the Michigan 29.
Franklin said that he wanted to be aggressive in that situation, and that Penn State has had its share of issues in short-yardage situation at times this season.
“That was our going for it on fourth down,” he said. “I felt like we had the look that we want, but it’s about details. We threw the ball to the back hip. Jordan’s not the type of guy that’s going to be able to catch a ball thrown behind him and still be able to outrun the defense. We’ve just got to clean it up. The margin of error is really small.”
Stout, who completed an 18-yard pass to linebacker Curtis Jacobs on a fake punt play on the Lions’ initial drive, kicked field goals of 42, 52 and 31 yards. But his team needed touchdowns against a Wolverines offense that came in averaging 36 points per game.
Worn down by Michigan’s power running game led by Hassan Haskins, who rushed for 156 yards in 31 carries, the Lions’ defense allowed three touchdowns for the first time all season. All three came on scoring passes from Cade McNamara, including the game-winning 47-yard throw to tight end Erick All with 3:29 remaining.
The Lions’ last-ditch effort was stifled after elite wide receiver Jahan Dotson took a solid hit on third down. An official timeout for injury was called, meaning that Dotson had to sit out Penn State’s vital fourth-down call from its own 33 to keep the drive alive.
He could have returned to the game had Franklin elected to call timeout, but the coach indicated that Dotson would not have been ready to return.
“Obviously that’s not the time you want to lose Jahan Dotson,” Franklin said, “because at that point in the game, you’re thinking players, not plays, and trying to get the ball into your playmaker’s hands. Obviously that was a critical play in the game.”
Clifford’s fourth-down pass was incomplete and the Wolverines ran out the final 2:51.
“It is disappointing,” safety Jaquan Brisker said. “But at the same time, we have to look forward. That’s life. You’re going to hit adversity. But we can’t cry. We have three games left. We have to lead the team. We’re not going to throw each other under the bus. We’re going to stick together.”