Penn State running back Miles Sanders had just 45 rushing yards on 15 carries heading into the final play of Saturday’s Ohio State-Penn State thriller. But with the Nittany Lions facing a fourth-and-five just outside of field goal range, down 27-26 with a little over a minute to play, PSU coach James Franklin made the baffling decision to hand the ball off to him.
The result, to an outsider at least, looked like one of the worst high-leverage play calls since Super Bowl XLIX, as at least two Penn State offensive linemen failed to block any Buckeyes, and Sanders got dropped for a two-yard loss. That pathetic last gasp ended a game in which Penn State held a 12-point lead at home with seven minutes remaining, and preserved Ohio State’s undefeated record.
After the game, Franklin explained that he thought he had spotted something about the Ohio State defensive set-up that would lead to a crease up the middle. He was wrong as hell:
“They changed the look [on defense], so we called a timeout and had some discussions,” said Franklin, who called two timeouts before the ill-fated fourth-and-5 play was smothered by Ohio State’s Chase Young at the Buckeyes’ 45-yard line.
“We obviously didn’t make the right call in that situation, and that’s on me, nobody else. We didn’t make the right call, and obviously, it didn’t work. We have called something similar like that in other situations, and it broke for a big play. But that’s on me.”
Obviously, a conversion in that spot wouldn’t have even guaranteed that Jake Pinegar—whose longest field goal on his young career is just 39 yards—would have delivered the victory. And focusing on this one specific play lets Penn State’s defense off the hook for completely failing to tackle Binjimen Victor on his fourth-quarter 47-yard touchdown that made the game 26-21, or getting wrecked by a screen pass for the game-winner. But quarterback Trace McSorley was gaining the team 10 yards at a time with almost all of his second-half runs, and Franklin’s choice to give the ball to a guy who had been decidedly ineffective all night, with the game on the line, comes off as too clever for its own good.