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Against Ohio State, James Franklin Put on a Bad Play-Calling Masterclass

The Penn State coach lost the biggest game of the Nittany Lions’ season by playing not to lose

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

The zone read is a simple premise: The offense focuses on blocking 10 defensive players, and the quarterback deals with the 11th by making a “read,” choosing to either keep the ball or hand it off depending on the actions of the unblocked player. Sadly for Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, on the 4th-down play against Ohio State that may define Penn State’s season, there was more than one defender for him to deal with:

Penn State left one Ohio State defender unblocked by design, and three by mistake. McSorley’s options were death if he handed the ball off or death if he held on to it. Unsurprisingly, he chose death.

This was not the first time there has been a bad play-call made in a pivotal moment, but it might be the first to prompt an immediate mea culpa from the coach who called it:

Penn State-Ohio State has become one of the annual games of the year. The Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions have recently been the two best teams in the Big Ten, with the game’s winner going on to win the league’s championship in each of the past two years. And the games between the two have been amazing: A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown gave the Nittany Lions a stunning 24-21 win in 2016, and last year the Buckeyes rallied back with 19 fourth-quarter points to win 39-38. Saturday night, the Buckeyes repeated their 2017 performance, storming back from double-digit deficits twice to win by a single point, 27-26. The result will shape the season: Penn State now needs Ohio State to lose twice to win the Big Ten—not bloody likely—or needs to hope that an 11-1 record with one one-point loss to Ohio State is enough to convince the College Football Playoff committee that both teams belong in the four-team field.

But the onus for this loss doesn’t seem to fall on Penn State’s players, but on coach James Franklin. Franklin is almost single handedly responsible for his program’s recent resurgence, but sometimes his in-game decisions can be baffling. And on Saturday, Franklin’s misguided calls were frequent and unmissable. Here are just a few of his confusing calls:

He Gave Up On Fourth Downs

It’s rare to see a coach give up as easily as Franklin did Saturday night in such a big game. A list of his surrenders:

—On Penn State’s first drive of the game, Franklin ordered a punt from Ohio State 39-yard line. It went 19 yards. That’s not a punt, it’s a bad interception.

—At the end of the first half, Franklin punted on 4th-and-1 from midfield. The Nittany Lions had time to push for a field goal, but the fear of not getting a first down and allowing a Buckeyes field goal in even less time frightened Franklin off.

—Facing fourth-and-5 from the Ohio State 37 with under five minutes left in the game, Franklin had his team take a delay-of-game penalty to set up a better punting situation. The punt was great, downed at the 4-yard line. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter. On the ensuing possession, the world learned that the Nittany Lions couldn’t defend a screen pass, as the Buckeyes picked up 73 yards on screens en route to a game-winning touchdown drive.

Uh, What Was Up With Those Timeouts?

When Franklin made his very big, very bad call for a zone read on fourth-and-5, it wasn’t like he didn’t have time to think about it. Knowing that the game (and maybe the season) was on the line, Franklin took back-to-back timeouts before making the fateful call.

The first timeout almost made sense: it gave Franklin the opportunity to observe how Ohio State was lined up defensively. Ideally, you’d want a coach confident enough in his decision-making to roll with his first call instead of wasting a valuable timeout to observe the defense, but, still, there’s a reason for it.

There is, however, no good reason to call two timeouts, back-to-back, besides crippling indecision. And those timeouts cost Penn State dearly: After the fourth down play failed, Ohio State got the ball with 1:12 remaining in the game. If Franklin hadn’t called the timeouts, Penn State would have had the opportunity to get a defensive stop, force a punt with about 45-50 seconds left, and try a desperate drive for a game-winning field goal. Instead, they were doomed—Franklin did call his third and final timeout after Ohio State got the ball back, but that was entirely meaningless, since he had no means of actually stopping the Buckeyes from running out the clock.

Franklin’s do-or-die playcall was bad, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been do-or-die if he hadn’t burned his timeouts.

And Yeah, Let’s End With The Playcall

Penn State ran a damn zone read on fourth-and-5. Not fourth-and-1, not fourth-and-2. Fourth-and-5. Some plays are doomed by execution, and yes, the execution was horrible, but zone reads are not expected to work on fourth-and-5s.

And this play call was made in spite of the fact that Penn State’s best player is ThrowBro McSorley. (ThrowBro is a technical term.) McSorley had a great night Saturday. His passing line was fine (286 yards on 32 attempts with two touchdowns and no interceptions) but he really proved himself as a scrambler, posting a career-high 175 yards rushing. All night, the Buckeyes couldn’t figure out how to shut down the Penn State passing threat and keep an eye on McSorley at the same time.

The ball probably needed to be in McSorley’s hands in the hopes that he could complete a short pass or hurl his body forwards as he had so many other times Saturday night. Instead, this:

Maybe you hand the ball off to Saquon Barkley on fourth-and-5. Probably not—five yards is a long way to go. But perhaps Barkley could have juked five or seven or 13 Buckeyes to get a first down. Unfortunately, Barkley is in the NFL now. Penn State’s running back is Miles Sanders, who is really good, but not as transcendent as Barkley. He had 16 carries for 43 yards Saturday night, an average of 2.7 yards per carry. He would have needed to double his average carry to get that first down.

Running is a strategy designed to minimize risk. A passing play can get you either 15 or zero yards, while rushing plays tend to get you a handful of yards, regardless of whether they’re good or bad. They make sense on third-and-5, because you’d rather have fourth-and-2 than throw an incompletion to bring up fourth-and-5. But this was fourth-and-5, and Franklin acted as if he wanted to pick up a decent chunk of yardage to set up a good situation on fifth down.

All of these decisions—the 4th-and-short punts, the timeouts, the running play—were designed to minimize risk. Franklin’s goal was to reduce risk, across the board, to try and prevent anything bad from happening. But when you avoid taking risks against a great football team, something bad will happen: The great team will win.