Penn State has begun the 2019 calendar year with a feeling all too familiar to it in 2018. On New Year’s Day, the Nittany Lions fell 27-24 to the No. 14 ranked Kentucky Wildcats in the VRBO Citrus Bowl. Penn State closed out the season dropping to 0-3 against top-15 teams on the season, and is now a mere 1-4 against such opposition in that last two seasons under coach James Franklin.
The consistent flaw in the Nittany Lions’ game plan showed its face once more against Kentucky: sloppy special teams play and a lack of aggression late in games. Special teams was thought by some to be a strength for Penn State heading into the game. However, a lack of execution proved to be the Nittany Lions’ downfall to the tune of a failed fake punt inside their own 35-yard line, two field goals which freshman kicker Jake Pinegar failed to convert and a 58-yard touchdown return by the Wildcats’ Lynn Bowden.
While Franklin no doubt tried to set an aggressive tone early with the fake punt, one can question if the conversion was worth the risk deep in their own territory against a top 25 defense like Kentucky. Ultimately, the Wildcats’ field goal – which resulted from the failed fake – made the difference in the game. Special teams will no doubt have to be a focal point heading into the offseason.
Questions can also be asked regarding the decision to kick a field goal when Penn State was down by six points with around four minutes to go, rather than going for a conversion on 4th-and-six inside the Kentucky 20-yard line. Franklin’s choice to take the three points could be justified by Brent Pry’s defense forcing two straight three-and-outs going into the Wildcats’ final drive. However, where is the aggressive nature the Nittany Lions started the game with?
A lack of trust in the offense, especially senior quarterback Trace McSorley, has become a theme for Penn State late in games during Franklin’s tenure. McSorley holds almost every school record at Penn State during his illustrious career. So, the question becomes ‘why not trust him to put the team in a position to win the game, especially when there is no guarantee your team gets another possession?’
One can look back to Penn State’s narrow defeat to Ohio State earlier in the season to find a similar issue leading to the Nittany Lions’ downfall. When faced with a make-or-break fourth down, the ball went to running back Miles Sanders on a hand off, rather than McSorley.
The game is evolving in favor of the more aggressive offense. Points are being scored at a historic clip. It is up to Franklin to make these adjustments and put more trust in his best players and find the proper assistants to run his game plan down the road.
However, those calling for his head may be overreacting. Franklin has brought an incredible amount of talent to State College in such a short amount of time. It has been a frustrating couple of seasons in big games for Penn State fans, but it has been a learning experience which will serve him well down the road.
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