As Penn State and college football followers continue to debate the Nittany Lions’ ill-fated final play call on Saturday, a simple truth remains.
The Lions had a 12-point lead with eight minutes left against Ohio State. That they needed to convert a fourth-and-5 in the final minute-plus speaks to a collapse by the defense that had played well for three-and-a-half quarters.
Poor tackling nearly cost Penn State a win in the season-opener against Appalachian State. It also kept both Pitt and Illinois competitive through halftime in those games before the Lions pulled away.
Against a much stronger Buckeyes squad, it was the difference between a win and a loss.
“We played our first-teamers at a much higher rep count than we have the previous games,” Lions coach James Franklin said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. “I think that put us in the position we were in, but I also think that we ran out of gas a little bit in the fourth quarter.”
Up 26-14 at the seven-minute mark in the fourth quarter, Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins hit Binjimen Victor, who leaped above Amani Oruwariye for a nice gain to the Lions 35.
Victor was facing the line of scrimmage and at a dead stop when he landed with the ball. Oruwariye was airborne and flailed at him as he started up.
Fellow corner Tariq Castro-Fields came up for a hit as Victor headed toward the sideline. The sophomore dove at his legs and missed.
Two other Penn State players were in the vicinity, but both Garrett Taylor and Nick Scott couldn’t get off blocks. Linebacker Micah Parsons was well downfield and also in position to make a stop but badly overran the play as Victor cut back to the middle of the field, leaving only defensive linemen Shaka Toney and Robert Windsor a step too slow to stop him from scoring.
Still, the Lions led 26-21 and needed to only keep the Bucks out of the end zone the rest of the way.
Ohio State had great success on screen passes on the night, however, and managed to dig out of a hole on the next drive.
Ultimately facing third-and-5 from the Lions 24, Haskins tossed a quick lob out to K.J. Hill, who caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Scott was blocked out of the way, but that left cornerback John Reid all alone to make a tackle on Hill, who was trapped near the sideline.
A slight stutter step from Hill was all it took for Reid to go flying past him, only managing to briefly slow down the wideout with a hand. Scott recovered to try and track Hill down, but in his pursuit he cut off linebacker Cam Brown from making a play while another downfield Ohio State block ended up collecting three Lions defenders, allowing Hill to skip into the end zone for the winning score.
A night’s work of solid work on defense undone that quickly.
“We’re always going to be working to get better on fundamentals and technique,” Franklin said. “And they’ve got great players and they’ve got great depth and they’ve had that for a number of years. And I do think that, come the fourth quarter, we had guys play a lot more reps than they’ve ever played, and we started to wear down and that showed.
“But I think, from a fundamental standpoint, it’s hard to say from a scheme standpoint that we would need to look at that because we held one of the most explosive offenses in the country way under their yardage and point total. But, come the fourth quarter, we didn’t have enough left in the tank.”
Penn State will have plenty of time to rest now as they head into an off weekend before hosting Michigan State on Oct. 13.