The Spartan Stadium field was covered in snow from the opening kickoff of Saturday’s game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and Michigan State Spartans. Conditions were slick, with players like running back Keyvone Lee saying they had to work to find their footing on the playing surface.
Despite those conditions, the Penn State passing offense was on a roll. Redshirt senior starting quarterback Sean Clifford was hitting open receivers who were making plays in the open field.
He started the game by completing 12 of his 17 passing attempts for 189 yards and two touchdowns, moving the ball relatively easily down the field through the air.
Yet, down 23-20, the Nittany Lions ran the ball on nine of their next 15 plays, resulting in zero points and the offense’s only turnover of the game.
The unit has had relatively little success running the ball this season, but the way Saturday played out aligned with the rest of the season — with the offense trying to run the ball when it was having plenty of success throwing it.
Penn State head coach James Franklin, who previously said in press conferences that he’s on the headset reminding offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to run the ball, said after the game that he felt the team needed to run in order to have success.
“We’ve tried to mix the run game all day long,” Franklin said. “We tried to help our offensive line in protection. But obviously we weren’t able to run the ball consistently enough. ... We felt like we needed to mix the run game in the entire game.”
The offense did find occasional success on the ground before that stretch but had struggled for the most part, tallying 48 yards on 18 attempts in the stretch before the Spartans went up 23-20, continuing to run the ball despite the lack of success.
Clifford said the passing game wasn’t directly impacted by the weather, sans one or two throws, and that he would have gladly thrown the ball all game while acknowledging that’s not his decision to make.
“It’s a coach’s decision,” Clifford said. “I thought we were doing pretty well in the pass game, but we also hit some big ones in the run game. Play-calling is not my expertise, I just run (the play). ... I’ll throw the ball every play if (we) have to.”
Clifford’s deferral to the coaching staff was the diplomatic response but the trend of the game pointed to a team that should have been throwing the ball down the stretch — not just Saturday, but all year.
That will likely be the story of this season. For all of the frustration with the running game and all of the calls for improvement, there was rarely criticism levied in the same way toward the passing game.
There were signs that improvement needed to happen and occasional questions about the passing game, but nothing to the extent of the running game.
The team’s struggles on the ground will draw the attention, and improvement surely would have helped, but so would an adjustment. Not an adjustment to how the team was running, but rather, that it was running.
The Nittany Lions are a team that played well offensively when it was throwing the ball but have a head coach hellbent on playing with more balance.
On Saturday, that balance was supposed to be to help the offensive line in pass protection, but if the offensive line needed help and running the ball was the way to help, then surely it must have been struggling in pass protection.
Not according to Franklin, who said the majority of struggles came when the team was obviously throwing the ball down 10 in the fourth quarter — after the nine runs in 15 plays.
“Overall (the pass blocking was) pretty good,” Franklin said. “Obviously there were some plays, especially late in the game where we were in obvious passing situations, but overall I thought we pass protected pretty good. We’ve got to be able to run the ball better.”
But maybe they didn’t. Maybe they needed to keep doing what made them successful all season.
A pass-heavy approach could have proved futile. It could have been just as ineffective as the running game proved to be as the passing attempts increased and the threat of a run decreased.
But it would have at least been an attempt to be successful based on prior successes, rather than trying the same failing strategy over and over again and expecting a different result.