Special Team Mistakes, Coaching Decisions Cost Penn State Despite McSorley Comeback

| January 2, 2019

ORLANDO – Penn State’s hopes of a third straight 10-win season came to an end amidst a bevy of special teams mistakes and a questionable late call by head coach James Franklin in a 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.

(Photo by Paul Burdick. Check out more of Burdick’s work here)

The special teams miscues – a failed fake punt, two missed field goals, a punt return for a touchdown and a kick out of bounds – played a large role in the Nittany Lions going down 27-7 going to the fourth quarter.

Then Franklin made an interesting decision electing for a short field goal on fourth-and-7 from the Wildcats 14 with 4:12 left after an injured Trace McSorley had rallied his team on sheer guts to within six with a rushing touchdown and a passing score.

The Jake Pinegar field goal was good – a small consolation after he missed two kicks in the first half – but Penn State was still down a score, the same as it would have been without the kick.

Franklin said he was placing trust in his defense with three timeouts left. But that defense, which had forced back-to-back Kentucky three-and-outs in the fourth quarter after yielding 17 third-quarter points couldn’t stop Kentucky’s record-setting senior running back Benny Snell Jr., who carried eight times on the Wildcats final drive for 25 yards and a pair of first downs to run all but one second off the clock to seal the win and Kentucky’s first 10-win season in 40 years.

“It really was going to come down to how close we could get it to fourth-and-short,” Franklin said when asked why he elected for the late field goal. “As well as our defense had been playing all day long, and with us having three timeouts left, we were either going to have to score in that situation if we went for it or we were going to have to kick a field goal, which still would have put it in a situation where we could have got a field goal on that last drive. So, it really just came down to how long was the fourth down going to be and the fact that we had managed the timeouts pretty good and we still had three
available. If we were able to stop them on those first three plays, be able to go three-and-out, use our timeouts, we weren’t able to do that. Obviously, when you don’t stop them and they run a four‐minute offense and they’re able to get a first down and burn timeouts, then obviously it looks like you should have went for it in the earlier situation. But it just really comes down to executing. We didn’t execute.”

Penn State wouldn’t have been in the position to need six points to tie the game late if its special teams hadn’t been a complete disaster in the first half.

It started on the Nittany Lions first drive of the game when the Nittany Lions tried a fake punt on fourth-and-2 from its 33. But up-man Jonathan Thomas dropped the ball and then was stopped for no gain. That led to an early Kentucky field goal and a 3-0 lead.

“We have been working that,” Franklin said. “You know, we dropped the ball. We don’t drop the ball, I think we get the first down. You know, it’s hard to fumble the ball on a fourth-and-short situation and pick it up.”

Franklin said the call was about being aggressive early to win the game – sort of strange since he wasn’t aggressive late with the game on the line.

“Winning this game, wanting to be aggressive, we knew we were going to call that,” Franklin said. “We had another one that we were going to call if the situation presented itself, but we wanted to play the game aggressively. You know you go for it on fourth-and-short, you don’t get it, you get criticized for it. You don’t go for it on fourth-and-short and you punt the ball, you get — I get it. It comes down to us doing a better job as coaches and players of executing. We took that risk right there, wanting to be aggressive and keep the ball in our hands and give ourselves the best chance to go down and score. We didn’t execute. We gave them great field position and gave them momentum. There’s no doubt about it. (If) you pick up that first down, you don’t fumble the snap, you go down and score, it’s a different story obviously in the first half.”

Penn State had a chance to tie the game two possessions later after a 73-yard punt by Blake Gillikin flipped field position with the punt being downed at the Kentucky 3-yard line and Penn State getting the ball back at its 46.

The Nittany Lions then drove to the Kentucky 22-yard line before the drive stalled. Out came Pinegar, but the freshman’s kick was way wide right.

Two possessions later, Kentucky took advantage of bad special teams by Penn State to make it 10-0 when Lynn Bowden Jr. returned a punt 58 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead.

Penn State answered on its next drive scoring on a 1-yard McSorley to Nick Bowers touchdown pass to make it 10-7.

The game remained 10-7 late in the first half when the Nittany Lions had a chance to tie the game when Pinegar lined up for a 36-yard field goal 51 seconds to play. But Pinegar’s kick was low out of the gate and Josh Allen, the best linebacker in the country, got a piece of it and it wobbled no good. It was Pinegar’s 10th missed field goal of the season.

“The first half, we didn’t execute on offense,” Franklin said. “We didn’t execute on special teams.”

The special teams errors kept up at the start of the second half when Rafael Checa’s kickoff to start the half went out of bounds giving Kentucky good field position.

Snell then broke free for a 32-yard run on the first play, and that set up a 2-yard Snell touchdown run to make it 17-7.

That was the start of a great third quarter for Kentucky which also got a 28-yard Miles Butler field goal and a 12-yard Snell touchdown run that put Kentucky ahead 27-7.

Things also looked bleak for Penn State when McSorley didn’t start the second half missing the Nittany Lions first series of the half with an injury before returning for the second series. Some reports surfaced that it was potentially a broken bone in McSorley’s foot with McSorley saying it was “unclear” if that was the injury after the game.

“Well, I think the first thing is it always starts and ends with the doctors,” Franklin said. “They’re going to make that call. And then after that, it’s a conversation with Trace. And I think at first, we weren’t sure. That was my conversation with Trace, and he didn’t necessarily tell me that he couldn’t go, but I know Trace and I could see his eyes and I could tell his movement. I wasn’t going to put him back in there. And then some time went by and he ran around a little bit and he felt better and felt confident. So once the doctors left it up to Trace, then that’s my conversations with Trace and that’s me knowing Trace and that’s me watching Trace.”

McSorley backed his coach’s version.

“Yeah, I kind of echo what he said,” McSorley said. “The doctor was saying it’s just a matter of how it felt and pain management. I mean, for me, my personality, I wasn’t going to go out — they would have take off my badge for me (not to). I was going to be playing. So it was just a matter of being able to deal with it and then being able to go out there. I’ve been through too much. This team’s been through too much for it to be a little pain deal or whatever. They told me (it was) just a matter of dealing with the discomfort, and if I could do that, I was going to do it.”

In the fourth quarter, McSorley was at his McSorley best giving Penn State a chance when most had written the game off.

He drove the Nittany Lions 75 yards in 10 plays but only took 2:58 off the clock before scoring on a 1-yard run to make it 27-14 with 13:37 to play.

Penn State’s defense then got the first three-and-out, and McSorley quickly took the Nittany Lions 60 yards in six plays taking on 2:24 off the clock before hitting Pat Freiermuth with an 18-yard touchdown pass to make it 27-21 with 9:00 to play.

The defense again forced a three-and-out, and Penn State took over at its 25-yard line with 7:46 left.

McSorley then had a 17-yard run on third-and-1 to the Kentucky 49 before hitting Bowers with a 25-yard pass to the Wildcats 30 after a sack had pushed Penn State back. Miles Sanders then had a 13-yard run on third-and-10 to the Kentucky 17.

But the drive stalled before two incomplete passes and a 3-yard McSorley run before Franklin chose to take the field goal.

McSorley ran for 75 yards and the score and passed for 246 yards and two scores while throwing an interception. He was sacked five times, though, including three times by Allen.

Snell ran for 144 yards and two scores for Kentucky.

Penn State finishes 9-4 with Kentucky ending 10-3.

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