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Penn State Hopes To Learn From Tough Beats, Keep CFP Hopes Alive

October 12, 2018

It’s a day they want to forget.

They’d like that so much, they struggle to remember the nearly three-and-a-half hours they spent cramped into a meeting room in the bowels of Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, waiting out a lightning storm that just wouldn’t leave. Wondering if a critical game in not just the race for the Big Ten East Division, but the College Football Playoff, might resume in two minutes, or 10, or if they’d be waiting in that room for another hour.

And, of course, that delay wound up being a contributing factor in many eyes around the Penn State program in Michigan State’s 27-24, come-from-behind win in a game that started nearly seven hours after opening kickoff and wound up ending the Nittany Lions’ College Football Playoff hopes.

Almost a year after vowing to learn from the experience, Penn State faces almost the same scenario again this week, sans the bad weather. A one-point loss to Ohio State in the rear-view mirror — just like it was when these teams met a year ago — the No. 8 Nittany Lions are still in the CFP hunt. But they’ll have to show they can finish off a talented program, and perhaps exorcise some of their demons against the Spartans, to stay alive.

“I’m very, very pleased with the direction of the program and where we’re going, but we’ve got to fight to get to that next level,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said this week. “We have to fight to get to that next stage, and like I said, it’s not going to be any one moment, where you have this “A-ha” moment and the light goes on. It’s that daily grind on little things that most people overlook.”

Talking about getting to another level is not uncommon with the Nittany Lions.

Franklin didn’t divert far from that theme — even if it didn’t have the same scope — after that loss in East Lansing in November.

Penn State built a 14-7 lead before the rains fell and the lightning hovered. When the game resumed after three hours and 22 minutes, they didn’t respond as well as the Spartans. Quarterback Brian Lewerke tied the game by finding receiver Felton Davis for a 33-yard touchdown, and the Spartans outscored the Nittany Lions, 20-10, after the delay, with Lewerke throwing for 400 yards against an overmatched secondary. A roughing the passer penalty on the Spartans’ final drive — it erased a potential fourth-and-4 from the Lions’ 37 for the Spartans, just out of field goal range — set up the game-winning field goal.

Franklin said the Nittany Lions needed to focus less on the polls, less on the “outside noise” and more on what has become one of his mantras, going 1-0 every week, treating every game like the Super Bowl.

“You focus on being 1-0, you achieve that each week, everything else will take care of itself,” Franklin said after that game. “I’m going to make sure that everybody in our building is crystal clear on that, because I would call us a young program in terms of the conversations that we’ve been a part of for the last six-to-nine months, maybe a year. We’re not mature enough to handle that, and I don’t know if anybody is to be honest with you. We’re going to get back to what I know works, our formula, and we’re not talking about anything else than about handling our business, about being 1-0, about respecting our opponent, and getting better every single day at practice, and not worrying about anything else besides that.”

The Nittany Lions were 8-0 after that speech before the late collapse against Ohio State, when Franklin delivered his much-talked-about speech alleging his Nittany Lions were “too comfortable” with being great and needed to work harder to be “elite.”

Since, Penn State has risen in the Associated Press poll, from No. 9 to No. 8, and quarterback Trace McSorley said the Nittany Lions’ practice Tuesday was “probably the best practice we had all year just from an intensity and attention to details standpoint.” It’s an attitude they say came from learning from those losses, and one they hope will enable them to avoid another letdown against the Spartans, in a game they have to win.

“Guys are focusing on the little things more than they were,” McSorley said. “That’s going to help us to emphasize that and continue to get better.”

Contact the writer:

dcollins@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9125;

@psubst on Twitter

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