Penn State coach James Franklin knew the Gophers were good. But that good?
Good enough to beat his highly regarded, highly-ranked undefeated team?
“Yeah. We knew they were a good football team,” Franklin said. “It’s hard to be undefeated. We’re playing a confident football team on the road that’s undefeated. They played well enough to beat us.”
He said the right things, giving the Gophers credit for their 31-26 victory, but he wasn’t gushing.
More than anything, he was in lament mode over how his team played, particularly in the first half when the Gophers went ahead 24-10.
“We started poorly. In the first half, we had interceptions, we had blown coverages, we missed tackles. We did not play well in the first half,” Franklin said. “We did enough in the second half to have a chance to win the game but weren’t able to finish it in the red zone. We’ve been great in the red zone.”
Until they faced the Gophers.
“I thought they played really well. Executed their plan,” Franklin said. “We took too long to adjust. Second half was a different story.”
The story of the second half came down to the final few minutes, when Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford appeared to complete a pass to the 2-yard line. The Gophers, at that moment, were in peril of losing. Then an official’s flag flew. Offensive pass interference backed the ball up to the 25-yard line for a second-and-24 play. Clifford threw an incomplete pass. On third down, he was intercepted in the end zone.
After a couple of kneel-downs by the Gophers to run out the clock, game over.
Franklin showed impressive restraint recounting the impact of the penalty and the interception.
“I don’t want to be one of those guys who come into press conferences and question calls,” he said. “I hope it’s clear as day because to make that call in that critical a situation … I do not want to be a guy who sits in here and talks about the officials when there are a lot of things we could have done better.”
Plenty of things his bunch could have done better. But those pesky officials didn’t help things. On the final game-crushing interception, Franklin wondered if his tight end, Pat Friermuth, had been held on the play. Friermuth said he thought so.
“It looked to me on that play that Friermuth got tackled in the middle of the field, but we’ll see,” Franklin said.
When he watches game footage, Franklin will see the ineffective play of his team, the lousy throws Clifford made in the first half, the inability to put pressure on Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan, who was terrific.
“Their quarterback was locked in,” Penn State linebacker Jan Johnson said.
Morgan hit 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and befuddled the Nittany Lions with run-pass option plays.
Meantime, while Penn State had more passing and rushing yards than the Gophers, as well as more first downs, the Nittany Lions also had three interceptions.
“It’s one of those you can’t help but blame yourself,” Clifford said. “I could have played a lot better.”
Yeah, he could have. But the Gophers made it mighty tough for him.
“They did a lot of things well,” Clifford said. “They disguised coverages. Hats off to them. They played a helluva game.”
And yet Penn State still had a chance to win in those final moments.
“We lost the turnover battle. Three turnovers on the road is not who we’ve been,” Franklin said. “You turn the ball over on the road against a good opponent, a top 10 opponent, it makes it very challenging to win.”
The Gophers weren’t in the top 10 when the weekend began. They ranked 13th in the Associated Press poll and 17th in the College Football Playoff rankings. Penn State was fourth in the CFP and fifth in the AP poll. You can bet the Gophers will a top-10 team after the biggest program win in at least half a century.
“The first quarter touchdown (by the Gophers) is the first we’ve allowed this season,” Franklin said. “Felt like offensively, they were able to get in a rhythm. They were able to stay on schedule. The game played out the way they wanted it to play out.”
There’s a reason for that. The Gophers are a very good team, better than many people here in Minnesota and around the country realized. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck gets flak about his rah-rah personality and the row-the-boat stuff. Some love it, others think it’s phony. It doesn’t really matter what you think, because his behavior and demeanor doesn’t change this: The guy can coach.
“We knew they were good,” Penn State guard Steve Gonzalez said. “They’re 9-0 now for a reason.”
Bob Sansevere can be heard on the KQ Morning Show Monday, Wednesday and Friday and his daily podcast can be heard on iTunes, Stitcher and thebsshow.net as well as on radio stations in Duluth (KDAL), Hibbing (WNMT) and St. Cloud (WBHR).