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Penn State's James Franklin Expects One-Possession Game at Ohio State

Franklin says the Lions have 'closed the gap' vs. the nation's top-5 programs. The next step? Beating them.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. | Two factors separate top-25 college football teams from the top 5, according to Penn State coach James Franklin: talent and situational-football skills. When they visits No. 3 Ohio State team on Saturday, the Nittany Lions have another chance to prove they belong in the top 5 and cross the "great-vs.-elite" threshold that always resurfaces for this game.

"I think we have closed the gap with a lot of what people would consider the top-five programs in the country," Franklin said after practice Wednesday. "We have slowly chipped away at that. We've put ourselves in a much better position. I think it's going to come down to a one-possession game, and we've got to be able to find a way to win that situation at the end of the game. Whatever it is — four-minute, two-minute, whatever it may be — we've got to be able to capitalize in that situation on the road in a tough environment."

Franklin’s confidence in making such statements has increased greatly since he started getting more administrative “yeses” and creating more “alignment,” which Franklin has correlated with the hiring of Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi and Athletic Director Patrick Kraft. Yet once again, Ohio State serves as the benchmark for improvement. Franklin has been close in the past, with one win to show for it in 2016.

“We've played these guys for a long time. Probably up to the last two years, [we] probably played them as well as anybody in the conference,” Franklin said. “But we’ve got to find a way to be able to win in the fourth quarter and win these one-possession games.”

Penn State certainly has played Ohio State closer than most but also has been tormented by late-game losses to the Buckeyes more than any other. The Lions held a 21-16 lead a year ago before allowing 28 points in the fourth quarter. Even in a disappointing 2021 season, Penn State trailed by as few as 3 points in the fourth quarter. The Lions led for nearly the entire game until the 2:03 mark of the fourth quarter in 2018, extinguishing their hopes on an infamous fourth-down rush from Miles Sanders. Ohio State scored 12 unanswered points in the final 4:20 in 2017, the front end of back-to-back one-point losses. Notice a trend?

As Franklin suggested both Tuesday and Wednesday, there’s a high probability this year’s Penn State-Ohio State game ends in yet another wire-to-wire showdown. But Penn State (6-0) has not been tested in those situations this year, winning every game by at least 17 points.  The Lions have trailed in just one game, in the first half against Northwestern, and have outscored opponents 87-0 in the third quarter. That offers benefits, notably rested starters and experienced backups. And several players seemed unbothered by their lack of late-game experience this season.

“We're well prepared. The same things we do, we work on in practice,” defensive end Chop Robinson said. “Our two-minute drill with our one offense and one defense. So we're prepared for every situation.”

“It's just how we practice every day. We approach every day with that intensity,” linebacker Curtis Jacobs said. “Honestly, the games are less pressured than practice really, if that makes sense.”

Franklin said that Penn State has put together several good weeks of practice, with his younger players continuing to challenge the veterans. In fact. the coach said, if the team's depth and health weren't so positive at the moment, some of those young players would be on the field. They're closing the gap as well. 

However, Saturday will belong to the Nittany Lions' veterans and leaders, especially in the fourth quarter. 

"The reality is, confidence comes with preparing well, but it also comes with experience, and those guys have it," Franklin said. "Our most veteran players, our best leaders, our best players, they need to play well in these types of games. We don't have to be perfect but we need to play well in these types of games."

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Max Ralph is a Penn State senior studying Broadcast Journalism with minors in sports studies and Japanese. He previously covered Penn State football for two years with The Daily Collegian and has reported with the Associated Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter (X) @maxralph_ and Instagram @mralph_59.

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