Five observations from Penn State’s 42-7 loss at Michigan
There were some head-scratching moves by head coach James Franklin and his staff and another subpar game from the wide receivers. But a 9-3 record and a decent bowl remains in reach.
Some head-scratching coaching decisions
James Franklin and his staff didn't have their best day and it probably made little difference the way Michigan played. But the two timeouts called in the first half were puzzling. The first came after a three-and-out by the Nittany Lions on the game's initial possession when the punt team was slow to get on the field. The second was called with 1 minute left in the half after a sack of Trace McSorley, ending Penn State's deepest penetration of the first half to the Michigan 39, especially since the Wolverines were out of timeouts. Also, there seemed to be some disorganization with the quarterbacks in the third and fourth quarters (see next item).
What was with the quarterback shuffle?
Playing on a bum right knee and not sharp, McSorley was replaced by backup Tommy Stevens in the final minute of the third quarter with the score 21-0. Stevens threw a pick-6 on his second play and McSorley returned. McSorley was shaken up on a run on the final play of the third, and Stevens went back out for the start of the fourth quarter and took two snaps before a punt. But the hardest part of this sequence to explain came when Penn State got the ball again down 35-0, McSorley re-entered, and threw an interception on his last play of the game. With the game out of reach and McSorley hurting, Stevens should have gone the rest of the way after he first came in. Franklin indicated afterward that he didn't like Stevens turning the ball over and needed to get McSorley back in.
The wide receivers remain invisible
Saturday's contributions of the wide receivers consisted of two – freshman Jahan Dotson (two) and redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler (one) – making a total of three catches. Eleven of the Lions' 17 passes were targeted to wide receivers, including McSorley overthrowing a wide-open DeAndre Thompkins at the Michigan 10 late in the second quarter. But there is no sense that, other than Hamler, any wide receiver is capable of making a play. Franklin kept the injured Juwan Johnson at home. Perhaps it's time to increase Dotson's playing time and give freshmen Daniel George and Justin Shorter more opportunities. Yes, the Nittany Lions lost two major playmakers – DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki – from the 2017 team, but the dropoff in the pass game has been significant, and alarming.
The defense's effort is to be applauded
In the three games prior to Saturday, the Lions defense had been on the field for an average of 92 plays and 34 minutes, 29 seconds of playing time. While the unit faced "only" 69 plays by the Wolverines, it logged another 37:56 on the field. It had to defend short drives of 48 and 12 yards after turnovers, and a 90-yard scoring drive that covered more than seven minutes. Of course, the offense isn't doing its part to hold on to the ball very long, averaging just 62 plays in its last four games while converting just 25.9 percent of third downs. Franklin acknowledged after the game that the defense has played "way too many reps" and that adjustments in practice will be made this week to reduce the wear and tear.
So now what?
Two years ago, Penn State trudged out of the Big House following a 49-10 blowout loss and went on to win nine straight games and a Big Ten championship. A shot at the Big Ten title is no longer attainable this season but the question is whether the Nittany Lions have much left in the tank. Again, much of that can be blamed on the late collapses against Ohio State and, to a lesser extent, Michigan State. However, a 9-3 record, which was probably the consensus prediction at the start of the season, can be achieved and Franklin is confident that his leaders can keep everyone focused. "We've got a great locker room and our guys will handle this the right way," he said. "We've got an opportunity coming up this week (Saturday at home vs. Wisconsin) and we've got to make sure that there's no hangover effect from this."