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Sunday Debriefing: Penn State has an upper limit problem, and Nebraska keeps stumbling

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Scott Frost hasn’t gotten a win in Lincoln, and Penn State’s problems might not be on-field.

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NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Five Big Ten teams had a bye this weekend, but that didn’t stop the surprises and dramatics of Week 5.

Leading off, the Scott Frost era has gotten off to about as bad of a start as you could’ve imagined. Maybe if they had played that game with Akron in Week 1, the Cornhuskers would have a win. But alas, they did not play that game— and they still don’t have anything in the win column.

The gloom loomed Saturday afternoon, as Purdue was the latest team to add their name to the “Beat Nebraska” list. Colorado, Troy and Michigan join the Boilermakers in what has become a small get together of college football programs from varying echelons. What is now a small quiet gathering has a good chance to escalate to a full-blown, rowdy getting-busted-by-the-cops party if the Huskers don’t right the ship fast.

Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern get Nebraska at home; while Michigan State will travel to Lincoln, Neb. All four of those games are very real losses for Scott Frost. Oh, and they have to travel to Ohio State, did I forget that one? So make that five potential (and a couple very embarrassing) losses on the horizon for the Huskers. Actually, you might as well go full blown ragnarök and predict the OSU game: it will be bad, like, “why are they in the Big Ten bad.”

Well, that was until watching Saturday night’s primetime performance of Ohio State-Penn State. The Buckeyes looked beat in the first half, and Dwayne Haskins couldn’t do anything as the PSU defense was camping and eating smores in the backfield. Dropped passes became a problem again, but extended to just about every OSU wideout, not just one guy at a time.

Trace McSorley did more Trace McSorley things, and that didn’t bode well for the Buckeyes. But, everything changed in the second half, as the Buckeyes braved the White Out and took the lead late. Penn State had the ball for the final real drive of the game, and was driving down the field before getting faced with a fourth-and-5.

The sequence that followed was bizarre. James Franklin used a timeout, then Urban Meyer did the same for Ohio State. After that, Franklin used another timeout, and then dialed up a... read-option to the running back.

Even being a Buckeye alum, I felt frustration for the Nittany Lion faithful after that play. You’re five yards away from the first, and you start the play by going into shotgun formation— bringing you five yards further back— and then hand the ball off on a draw to not the guy that has 80 percent of your rushing yards and 93.7 percent of all of your offense on the night?

You literally forced yourself to gain five more yards than you needed and gave it to a guy averaging 2.7 yards per carry on the game. The worst part was a combination of the play, and having it go through Miles Sanders, the running back, instead of McSorley. Sanders didn’t even get back to the line of scrimmage before Chase Young wrapped him up.

For all practical purposes, PSU had no business losing to OSU in the last two meetings. Coincidentally, they had no business beating the Buckeyes the last time they were in Happy Valley in 2016 either. I— and I'm not joking with this— believe the last two Nittany Lion teams were College Football Playoff worthy. Last season was McSorley and Saquon Barkley, and this season is McSorley showing off that he's the East Coast version of Baker Mayfield. The losses aren't because of the players; they’re because of the coaching staff's inability to trust their own stuff down the stretch.

I'm willing to bet that whatever call Franklin had dialed up before burning the first timeout on that fourth-and-5 would've worked. When Urban called his timeout, I feel like PSU's brain trust on the sidelines over complicated the situation.

You're not trying to play 4D chess through a magical realm with giants in Jötunheimr; you're just trying to move a football five yards. Overcomplicating things in crunch time was the de facto reason for why Clemsoning became a thing. Franklin is a good coach— and I believe he is national title caliber—but he needs to trust his playmakers (and play-calling) when all the chips are down.

This has the makings of an upper limit problem. The author Gay Hendricks talks about the upper limit problems that one can face in his book, The Big Leap. It’s pretty good, and has sound logic for why these things happen. In this case, Franklin gets in his own way and sabotages his own success, which is also the team's success.

Last night, Franklin’s postgame presser was heated; he described the difference between an "elite" program like Ohio State, and a "great" program like Penn State. It was an argument of semantics, but, at least to me, this appeared to be the unraveling of a coach. He even blamed “two or three players” not going to class consistently for the team not being “elite” on the field. Almost in the same way a storm rips the shingles off of a roof: they come up one by one before completely shearing off.

Franklin made a spectacle of how a team becomes elite. However, I think he's incorrect. His team is already there. He just has to believe what he's calling in crunch time is going to work. The more you audible out of stuff, the odds increase of someone missing out on an assignment.

I think a little bit of the upper limit problems stem from the presence of Urban Meyer. The Urbz has three national titles and a boat load of other trophies. Franklin has one Big Ten title, one signature win in the regular season (against OSU in 2016) and a Fiesta Bowl. If I were in his same position, I would never admit that the success of Urban is blinding, and that when you have the Buckeye coach on the ropes, you start second guessing yourself because you can't really come to terms that you may actually beat him straight up.

For me, it's something that rests in the deep recesses of your mind, but boils up to the surface when you have those one or two plays that'll put the game away for good. Also, it shows when you let your frustration spill over to attacking fans even if they said something idiotic.

Story time! When I was going through the school system, I played clarinet. Each year, there was a district solo festival, and if you received a Score of I (Superior), you moved on to the state solo festival— where if you received a score of superior or excellent (I or II) you had the grand opportunity to buy your trophy— a lapel pin with a specific ribbon depending on your score grade.

In middle school, I never got a superior rating at the district festival, but gradually showed improvements. Granted, I took the Allen Iverson approach to practicing, but thought I would eventually get there. In high school, my freshman and sophomore runs at the district festival came close again, but the breakthrough didn’t happen. Now, with not much time left, I started to have this mini panic of “what if.” What if I never got that big signature, superior score at district? While skimping on the practicing wasn’t helping, the bigger problem I had was that, during the solo contests, I gravitated away from my bread and butter (tone) in an effort to get points on the technical side (i.e. articulating notes).

In my final two tries, I steered into my strengths and put a grand emphasis on tone, and hoped that would mask the technical shortcomings. While I did practice more for those pieces, which were legit tough (here’s the song I played senior year, but it wasn’t nearly this fast), there were still some weakness in the speed and mechanics of my playing. However, they weren’t performance-breaking mistakes. I eked out two superior scores on my junior and senior runs. Now, I didn’t get a superior at state, but I just wanted to get there. The point of this tangent is that, when you purposely play away from your strengths, you shouldn’t be surprised when things don’t work out for you.

But back to talking about football.

Another one-point loss in this fashion has, I think, real potential to derail Penn State and Franklin. Last year's loss was heartbreaking; this year's loss is enough to keep me up at night for the foreseeable future. Where the Nittany Lions go from here is completely up to them. They can run the table, or completely fall apart and lose two/three more games. But if Franklin and the coaches just look in the mirror and give an honest assessment for how they've play-called against Ohio State, and fix it, they'll be fine...in fact, they’ll likely be elite.

Speaking of teams whose coach needs to get out of the way (in this case, literally), Michigan nearly fell victim to Northwestern. Weird things happen when it turns dusk in Evanston. The Pat Fitzgerald program seems to ascend another level when they get that 3:30 or 8 p.m. timeslot. This was one of those elevation games, as they had the Wolverines on the ropes. Also, we got this GIF of Jim Harbaugh.

Northwestern had a 17-point lead, and yet, found a way to lose the game. For three and a half quarters, NU had control. But, the Wolverines’ go-ahead TD with 4:06 remaining shut the door on an upset. Karan Higdon scored twice on the ground for UM, while Shea Patterson put together a 196 yard afternoon in the air. Northwestern is now on a three-game slide, and have to face Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich., next weekend. As I put the same record back on the player: the Big Ten West looks weak this year...

Michigan State handled Central Michigan this week, so, I can’t really determine if this team has an adequate amount of “respekt,” “disrespekt” or whatever Mark Dantonio is doing to get this team motivated to ruin someone’s playoff hopes down the stretch.

Indiana and Rutgers had what seemed like a close affair in New Jersey, even though the offensive box scores said otherwise. Indiana outgained Rutgers 541-291, but only won the game 24-17. From the final score, it seems like a really good game for Rutgers— a morale victory of sorts. But if you dig deeper, you realize that the Hoosiers led 24-7 at halftime, and carried that lead into the final frame. Indiana should be happy with this win, as next week is going to be a tall challenge. Ohio State looks to shake off the near disastrous funk from Penn State with a home win over the Bloomington, Ind., program.