ORLANDO, Fla. —Shame on everyone who thought this might be different.
Just because some time had passed?
Just because they got some extra practices in before Christmas?
Just because some talented young prospects could play as much as anyone wanted them to, or because their starting quarterback — no, their heartbeat — was playing his last game and hoping his teammates could get him through the gates on a white stallion? Just because it was Kentucky, an upstart team that, frankly, never gets to play in a game this big?
None of it mattered on the first day of 2019, just like none of it ever mattered in 2018. Or in 2017, either.
The well-earned reputation these Nittany Lions have saddled themselves with over the last two seasons is that they can’t close. On a sun-baked New Year’s Day at Camping World Stadium on Tuesday, they showed a development toward not opening, either.
Kentucky took advantage of a series of Penn State mistakes to take a big lead, and quarterback Trace McSorley’s trademark heroics couldn’t bail them out in what became a 27-24 loss to the No. 14 Wildcats in the Citrus Bowl.
For head coach James Franklin, the postgame press conference might as well have been advertised as previously recorded.
Question: What went wrong for you guys, coach?
Answer: “[Kentucky] played well for four quarters,” he said. “We didn’t play well for four quarters. ... We didn’t make plays in the first half. If you look at it, our defense played extremely well in the first half, and our offense outgained them. But, we didn’t make plays when we had opportunities to make plays.
“Really, the same things that troubled us throughout the season troubled us here again today.”
Been there, heard that.
Franklin mentioned dropped passes and missed chances and below-the-standard special teams play. He could also have mentioned ill-timed turnovers and, yes, curious coaching decisions as part of the list.
All of that has been part of the Penn State football story this year. It hasn’t been just flashy young prospects and gritty quarterbacking and tackles for loss and off-the-charts recruiting.
It’s fair to say there has also been an inconsistency in every phase of the game that didn’t go away with adjustments or teaching or, most concerning, experience.
No single play wins a game. No single play loses it. Fans can gripe all they want about the fake punt on the first drive that came up short of the sticks. Or either one of freshman kicker Jake Pinegar’s two missed field goals. Or about Franklin’s decision to kick the field goal with four minutes left instead of trying to keep the drive alive on a fourth-and-7.
Problem is, it’s never really one thing that dooms Penn State.
It’s everything. It’s a pile of problems. Always a pile.
If Penn State played merely OK instead of flat miserable on special teams, it might’ve won going away.
But an offline snap by Kyle Vasey and a bad handle on it by upback Jonathan Thomas on the fake punt attempt forced that play to fall short. Punter Blake Gillikin’s second punt of the game was too low, not far enough toward the sideline, and dangerous Kentucky punt returner Lynn Bowden Jr. brought it back 58 yards for a score.
Add in Pinegar’s two misses — one that was altered at the line by leaping Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen — and that’s 16 points worth of mistakes from special teams coordinator Phil Galiano’s group that just never seemed to be good enough this season.
“I think it’s a couple things,” Franklin said of the special teams. “It’s inconsistency; we punt the ball 73 yards once and then shank the next one. That has kind of happened throughout the year. It’s our execution. It’s the responsibility of us as coaches making sure they’re confident and understanding their responsibilities. We haven’t done it consistently, all year long. That’s a concern.
“We’ll do whatever we have to do to get better. But it was not up to our standards. Not today. Not all year long.”
But it’s not all on the special teams.
McSorley threw an interception in the third quarter that led to a Kentucky touchdown, a would-be bomb to an open Juwan Johnson that Wildcats cornerback Lonnie Johnson returned 24 yards.
Linebacker Cam Brown was ejected on a targeting call that gave Kentucky extra yards on one drive in the third quarter. That penalty helped the Wildcats score a touchdown.
His replacement, freshman Micah Parsons, picked up a 15-yard penalty for a late hit out of bounds. That penalty helped the Wildcats kick a field goal.
Honestly, Penn State did something to help Kentucky out on every one of its scoring drives. Every one.
And it still had a chance to win. That’s hard to do.
The chance Penn State took on the fake punt in the first half, it didn’t late in the game when Franklin elected to have Pinegar try a field goal rather than go for it on fourth-and-7. The 32-yarder was good, and Penn State moved within a field goal.
That decision will be knocked as one that was a bit to conservative for fans’ liking, especially considering the Nittany Lions never really got the ball back. But with more than four minutes on the clock and all their timeouts in hand, it honestly wasn’t the worst play there.
But, again, Penn State’s defense that has been so good at times this season wasn’t good enough when it mattered. Wasn’t good enough late against Ohio State or Michigan State. Wasn’t good enough against Kentucky. Benny Snell Jr., the Wildcats’ bull of a running back, got eight carries, picked up 25 yards, forced Penn State to burn all three of its timeouts and left the offense with no chance at a comeback.
Kentucky didn’t fool the Lions. Couldn’t have. Snell got the ball again and again and again, like they knew he would.
They couldn’t stop him when a stop was all they needed.
“That’s a position every defense wants to be in,” safety Garrett Taylor said. “Go out there, game on the line, four minutes left, you know they’re going to run their bread-and-butter running plays, and we have to blow up and stop them. ... Everyone on the field had that mentality that we were going to go out there, stop them and get the ball back for our offense. We had all the confidence in the world. We just didn’t execute.”
In the end, as the 2018 Penn State Nittany Lions’ season is eulogized, the epithet might as well read “We didn’t execute.”
If they did, at varying points of the fall, this probably would have been a very different game, likely not played in Orlando, but probably in a much bigger setting with quite a bit more on the line.
Which makes how it ultimately ended very fitting and makes the next few months leading into the fall very important, indeed.
Not all was lost. All the same, this is a young team that needs to find itself first.