Walk-off field goal beats Lions; Franklin critical of team's focus

Penn St Michigan St Football
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, top, is upended by Michigan State’s Chris Frey (23) on Saturday.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – The crowd at Spartan Stadium, reduced to about 20,000 after 71,605 initially came in to watch Penn State and Michigan State before threatening weather prompted a three-plus-hour delay, made a lot of noise after the Spartans’ Matt Coghlin kicked the game-winning field goal on the final play.

But it wasn’t that noise James Franklin talked about Saturday after the Nittany Lions lost, 27-24, to the Spartans, their second defeat on the road in as many weeks, a setback that virtually ended their bids to repeat as Big Ten champions and to make the College Football Playoff for the first time.

The Lions’ head coach didn’t seem pleased this week with the way his players reacted to the loss at Ohio State, or listened to critics after that game, or talked following the release of the first CFP rankings of the season. He thought the distractions hurt his team’s focus, and he said he will make sure that’s not repeated.

“I just think there’s a lot of noise that we try to manage,” Franklin said. “When things are going well, there’s a lot of noise, a lot of positivity, a lot of patting on the back. When you lose a game, it’s the complete opposite, it couldn’t be more negative. For us in the past, we haven’t worried about all those things. There’s playoff rankings coming out. There’s this, there’s that. There’s stuff that doesn’t matter.

“We got 1-0 every single week. You respect your opponent, prepare like crazy, you get into the submarine and you shut everything else out. You’re appreciative. People say nice things and you say thank you very much, and move on. People say negative things, you say thank you very much and you move on. It goes in one ear and it goes out the other, you focus on the things that you can control.”

In the end, Penn State (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) had too many hurdles to overcome on one of the strangest days in the history of its program. Lightning in the area prompted officials to suspend the game at 1:14 p.m., midway through the second quarter, and the wait lasted for 3 hours, 24 minutes before play resumed.

Trace McSorley passed for 381 yards but threw a season-high three interceptions. The running game again went nowhere, with Saquon Barkley gaining zero yards on six carries in the first half, and finishing with 14 rushes for 63. The pass rush didn’t put much heat on Spartans sophomore Brian Lewerke, who passed for 400 yards.

But in the end, it was a roughing-the-passer penalty against free safety Marcus Allen following a third-down incompletion from the Penn State 37 that signaled defeat for the Lions. The 15-yard penalty and two running plays led to Coghlin’s game-winning kick, and Penn State watched its opponent flood the field in jubilation for the second straight week.

“We’re not getting to the quarterback. I think he tried to make a play,” Franklin said of Allen. “I haven’t watched [a replay], I’m on the field level. I didn’t realize it was late, but I guess it was. It was a crucial play in the game, obviously.”

Before the late heroics, the momentum swung back and forth. Penn State led, 14-7, before the stoppage of play but trailed, 21-14, in the third quarter. The Lions got the lead back by the end of the period on Tyler Davis’ 26-yard field goal and McSorley’s 70-yard pass to DeAndre Thompkins.

But the visitors did not score in the fourth quarter. On their last drive, they faced fourth-and-3 from the Michigan State 31, but Franklin decided against a 48-yard field goal into the wind, and McSorley’s pass to Thompkins fell incomplete. The Spartans took over on downs with 4:05 to play and drove to the game-winner.

Cornerback Grant Haley said Penn State must have a renewed focus on the next game, and nothing else.

“Coach Franklin is right,” he said. “We focus on going 1-0 each week and that’s what we’re going to do. I don’t think we really think about anything else but each game. We just focus on the next opponent. We’ve got to focus on fixing what we learned from today and move on to the next one.”

Franklin said he will attack his goal of a 1-0 week with more energy.

“We haven’t been part of these [rankings] conversations for a long time and we haven’t handled it well,” he said. “That’s on me, and that won’t happen again, because the formula that I know works. We’re getting back to it, and we’re not talking about anything else.”