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Opportunity is NOWHERE as Penn State’s ’16 Season Becomes a Distant Memory

Opportunity is NOWHERE

Depending on how you read that word NOWHERE, you probably clicked on this article for two different reasons. You could have read that as “Opportunity is nowhere”, if you believe that the opportunity for Big Ten and even National Championships have come and gone for head coach James Franklin and Penn State. Or you could have read it as “Opportunity is now here”, if you believe Penn State, with COVID-19 recruiting restrictions finally past them, are turning into the well-oiled recruiting machine that it has aspired to be and you believe recruiting is a major factor in college football success (the latter is true by the way). Either way, you could be right.

Regardless of where you believe the program is, there is a subtle but important reminder that Penn State’s 2016 B1G Championship is over five years old. Ohio State has since dominated the Big Ten East and this year even Jim Harbaugh and his Michigan Wolverines have (finally) won the Big Ten Championship. In fact, the Big Ten East now holds the record for the most different teams to make the College Football Playoff (Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan). Penn State is noticeably missing.

There are a lot of reasons or perhaps excuses for why Penn State hasn’t reached the pinnacle of college football. It’s easy to point to a few specific games or even a few specific plays that could have spring-boarded Penn State into the College Football Playoff. Who knows? If Penn State is able to appear in the College Football Playoff perhaps the program by 2022 would have already taken that next step from great to elite that James Franklin will always be remembered for. But maybe it wouldn’t have mattered either. An appearance in the College Football Playoff doesn’t mean eternal glory. Ask Florida State, Washington, and Michigan State. Even winning a national championship doesn’t mean your program is set up for an Alabama-like dynasty, ask LSU.

But as we look back five years since the Big Ten Championship it’s easy to see numerous misfires especially in 2017 and 2018 where Penn State may have had the best team in the Big Ten, at least on paper. Since then it has been death by a thousand cuts as it has seen Ohio State among others begin to separate once again. Constant turnover in the offensive coaching room has led to Penn State’s offense looks lost at times. Couple that with the good, but not great recruiting classes sprinkled in with a few misses on some top tier prospects and a failure to develop offensive linemen, and it’s easy to see where things have begun to go downhill. COVID-19 took away Franklin’s best recruiting weapon, on-campus visits where he could pitch the academic accolades to recruits’ parents, the tight-knit community to recruits’ guardians, and the exceptional brand of football to recruits. Couple And some of the best recruits they have brought in over the past couple years haven’t shined as bright as some have hoped.

Take Penn State’s five best prospects in the 2019 recruiting class. Linebacker Brandon Smith has declared early for the NFL Draft after a productive, but not incredible career at Penn State. Running back Devyn Ford has failed to separate himself as a running back or as a returner especially when facing Power Five opposition. Offensive linemen, Caedan Wallace, who was listed as a guard when recruited, has struggled to transition to offensive tackle at times. Defensive end, Adisa Isaac, unfortunately didn’t play this season due to a season-ending injury. Running Back Noah Cain hasn’t looked himself since he took the running back room over in 2019 before being banged up late in the season and suffering a season-ending injury on the first drive of the 2020 season.

The 2020 class has seen perhaps more impact than the 2019 class, with LB Curtis Jacobs, TE Theo Johnson, and WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith being key contributors in 2021, but safety Enzo Jennings, the 135th recruit in the class, has since entered the transfer portal. Although the defensive line prospects have lived up to the billing, the offensive line recruits have been disappointing to say the least.

But things at least appear to be heading towards more favorable waters. In the summer, Penn State jumped out to the No.1 recruiting class in the nation for the 2022 cycle after a fury of commits. Nobody thought they would stay at No.1 when it was all said and done, but the class stayed mostly together all the way to early-signing day. Penn State currently has the 6th best class in the country and the 2nd best in the B1G behind only Ohio State. Perhaps most importantly to some, Penn State has finally signed a top QB prospect in five star QB Drew Allar, from Ohio no less. Additionally, they signed the No.1 RB in Nick Singleton, who also won the National Gatorade Player of the Year.

There is no question that losing defensive coordinator Brent Pry to Virginia Tech is going to leave a hole. Pry was not only Franklin’s No.2, but he was also part of Franklin and Franklin’s family’s support system. That being said, Penn State acted swiftly to scoop up an experienced and vibrant defensive coordinator in Manny Diaz. Diaz inherits one of the best defenses in the country. He also was able to retain potentially a four-time Captain in LB Jonathan Sutherland, two-year starter, corner Joey Porter, Jr., and talented safety, Ji’Ayir Brown, who leads the team in interceptions.

On the offensive side of the ball, for the first time in three years, Penn State will have the same offensive coordinator for a second straight season, with Mike Yurcich coming back. Yurcich didn’t pass the blame on anyone when speaking to the media about the offense’s shortcomings, saying he will fix the offense or “die trying”. Yurcich, will also have his commander of the offense back, QB Sean Clifford, for Clifford’s sixth season. Clifford, who maybe doesn’t have the same ceiling as incoming freshman Allar, but seems excited to lead, mentor, and teach the young QB corps.

And although not impressive in 2021, the running back room will once again be stacked with numerous blue-chip running backs, even if one or two transfer this offseason. Will they find a homerun hitter in Singleton? At receiver, they will have to replace the sensational WR Jahan Dotson, but WR Parker Washington and Lambert-Smith have shown flashes, plus they just secured a transfer from Western Kentucky’s WR Mitch Tinsley, who caught over 80 passes and racked up over 1400 yards. You know where the tight end room stands, and you know where the offensive line room stands. One is promising and exciting yet not to expectation and the other one has been a disappointment.

Yet, the question still remains. It’s been five years since that rollercoaster ride of 2016 and everyone is beginning to wonder if Penn State only had one ticket to ride or if Penn State can get back to that level of play and perhaps stay there. It doesn’t take Penn State beating Ohio State and Michigan every year, but it does take Penn State beating Ohio State and Michigan some years and it does take Penn State handling the Illinois-like teams every year.

Who knows what will happen, but the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day seems as good as any of a beginning to tell that story.

Opportunity is NOWHERE

Penn State’s 33-24, Fifth Consecutive Loss to OSU Teaches Valuable Lesson

Another close loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Not something anyone will care about in twenty years when they see Ohio State won (at least) five-straight against Penn State for the first time in the series history. In the past five matchups, the Nittany Lions have found ways to play the Buckeyes better than anyone else in the conference, but haven’t found ways to come up on top.

And while nobody gave them a chance heading into Saturday, it’s hard to feel good about a moral victory in the midst of a three-game losing streak. However, this loss, like its predecessors stamps an important lesson for head coach James Franklin & Co.: losing to Ohio State shouldn’t be your measuring stick for success and beating Ohio State is not the only way to achieve your goals.

The truth is even if Penn State continues to recruit well they are never going to recruit at the same level as Ohio State, but they can put a product on the field that will always give them a chance. In seasons where Penn State hosts Ohio State, or a season where Ohio State’s team is in a valley for whatever reason, maybe the Nittany Lions will even be favored. But it’s unfair and unlikely to expect Penn State to beat Ohio State more than once every three years.

But the loss on Saturday tells us losing to Ohio State is OK, if and only if Penn State takes care of business everywhere else.

Penn State would not be riding a three-game losing streak if they had been able to hold on against Iowa and not flop against Illinois. It’s a story I continue to sear into the hearts of Penn State fans, but the program needs to realize it too.

Should we chase the Buckeyes and try to compete with them on and off the field? Absolutely.

But the reason Ohio State is the best team in the conference isn’t because they just beat Penn State; it’s because they also beat everyone else and that’s something Penn State hasn’t been able to do consistently. With the College Football Playoff most likely to expand in the next couple years, one loss to Ohio State isn’t going to keep Penn State out of the Playoff, but acting like Ohio State is the only team on our schedule worth giving our best effort to, will.

There is no excuse for the Illinois debacle after seeing the way this team played against the Buckeyes on the road. In fact it makes the entire month of October even more frustrating. You don’t get a Big Ten Trophy or an invitation to the Playoff for playing Ohio State more consistently than everyone else, but you do have a better shot if you begin treating everyone else like they are Ohio State.

The good news for the Nittany Lions is they can begin to learn this crucial lesson with the remaining games on their schedule. Prove to us that Ohio State isn’t the only team you care about by winning the remainder of your games, all of which you can win based on your performance last night.

Penn State’s Hangover Habit Strikes Again; Nittany Lions Lose 18-20 (9OT)

Head coach James Franklin’s Penn State teams are now 3-5 following their first loss of the season.

What makes this disheartening statistic even worse are the three wins Franklin does have coming off a loss are against Buffalo, Temple, and Indiana. The latter Penn State barely won, 34-27.

It’s a habit that has cost some of Franklin’s best teams even greater riches than the ones they eventually settled for. Everyone remembers the grueling losses to Michigan State in back-to-back years in ’17 & ’18. Nobody really cares about the loss that was buried in the 0-5 start last year, but it was still there.

And there there was today. Nobody could have imagined today.

Even with a battered and bruised football team, we all thought they had enough horses to handle a 2-5 Illinois squad with a first-year head coach, at home. We were wrong.

Credit the Illinois team for sticking to the game plan of wearing down an already depleted defense and keeping a inconsistent, but potentially lethal Penn State offense off the field.

But this loss feels deeper than the obvious X’s and O’s you could point to for why the Nittany Lions fell short in what seemed like 9 rounds of purgatory hell.

Perhaps it is the fact that Penn State fans, mostly, were pleading with their athletic administration, Board of Trustees, and anyone else who would listen that James Franklin is the right man for the job for perhaps the remainder of his coaching career. While that still is my belief, a loss to a far-less talented football team feels like a sucker punch to the stomach. It also provides at least a little doubt, if not a lot of doubt, in the back of your mind.

Sure Franklin will continue to recruit his tail off and bring in some of the best players in the country. Sure he will surround himself with all of the analytics and coaches to be able to make the right decisions. Sure he won’t always get so unfortunate with injuries and penalties at the most crucial of moments.

But what if his teams can’t break this hangover habit? Even after a BYE, why does a loss appear to hangover them for another week? In a college football season where one-loss was not a death sentence for the Playoff, but two surely was, why did they come out flat?

Those are the questions you have to ask yourself when you can’t find a way to get three yards for a 2 point conversion more times than a unequivocally worse opponent.

Penn State’s Positives from Saturday’s 20-23 Loss to Iowa

I don’t always try to look on the positive side of things, but after a frustrating game, where everything that seemed to go wrong–did, maybe we need to find some positives from the disappointing loss on Saturday.

Let’s start with the defense. The unit was called upon for pretty much the entire game–especially in the second half. They were on the field for 75 plays and held Iowa to 2.4 yards per rush, and 110 total rushing yards (only 3 more than Penn State). They also held Petras to 55% passing and 195 yards, 44 of which came on one play.

Most impressively, was their ability to prevent Iowa from scoring off of turnovers. Penn State’s offense threw four interceptions–two by QB Sean Clifford and two by his replacement Ta’Quan Roberson–yet the Iowa offense only converted those turnovers into three points.

The injury to defensive tackle, PJ Mustipher appeared to be a death sentence for a defensive line that lacked tackle depth facing a run-heavy, Iowa offense, but the interior of the defensive line stepped up. Defensive linemen Derrick Tangelo anchored one spot well, while backups Dvon Ellies, who was banged up for a little, and Coziah Izzard showed encouraging snaps.

Special teams was also a bright spot for Penn State on Saturday. Iowa’s punter, Tory Taylor had a remarkable day pinning the Nittany Lions deep in their own territory and will probably earn B1G Special Teams Player of the Week. But Penn State’s K/P Jordan Stout had an unsung performance. All of his kickoffs were unreturnable–he hasn’t allowed a return yet this season. Stout also had five punts for an average of 50.4 yards with a long of 58. Imagine if Iowa’s uninspiring offense setup 15-20 yards closer per possession–I doubt it’s a three score game.

Finally, Stout connected on two field goals with a long of 44 yards. In a way, he salvaged the only Penn State, second half, scoring drive, by nailing the 44 yard field after Roberson took a sack on 3rd & 6.

Offensively, it was quite a performance before Clifford’s injury. Clifford had 146 yards passing and another 36 on the ground with a touchdown and the Nittany Lions had scored on their last 3 of 4 possessions. Obviously, the quarterback play once Clifford departed with what is rumored to be a non-throwing shoulder injury, was abysmal.

However, before the injury, the receiver play was exceptional. KeAndre Lambert-Smith had 5 receptions for 61 yards. Jahan Dotson had 8 receptions for 48 yards, and Parker Washington had 3 receptions for 26 yards. The only disappointing performance was tight end Brenton Strange’s: two third down drops that would have really helped give Roberson some confidence.

Last, but not least, let’s discuss Ta’Quan Roberson. It’s obviously very easy to be negative about his performance because it may have been one of the worse halves of quarterback play in school history. The false starts weren’t entirely his fault, but it was clear the offensive linemen weren’t comfortable with his cadence. What was more worrisome was Roberson’s inability to throw the ball down the field. It takes quite a throw to overthrow Dotson, but Roberson was able to do it.

So how do I turn this into a positive? Well there isn’t a worst place to be thrown into the fire than Kinnick Stadium in a Top 5 matchup. Roberson then proceeded to fumble the first snap, compounding the pressure. With a BYE week to observe film and as Franklin says, “scout themselves”, Roberson can learn from his mistakes.

Furthermore, offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich has almost two full weeks to put a plan together for Roberson if he starts against Illinois. It’s also a huge benefit for the Nittany Lions to have an easy opponent in Illinois coming off the BYE. There is no way he can play worse than he did on Saturday. If Roberson can’t get on track against Illinois there will be no hope for him in Columbus at the end of the month.

Penn State now has almost three weeks to refresh and get healthy before a must-win matchup with the Buckeyes. I don’t know if they have the ability to win on the road, but optimistically, the next two weeks sets up as nicely as it could for the Nittany Lions.

Nittany Lions Sing Familiar Song In Shut Out of Indiana

I know nothing about writing a song.

But if I had to guess you sort of write it piece by piece. Perhaps you start with the chorus, then the bridge, then maybe the opening riff. Eventually, when it’s all said and done you have yourself a complete song built carefully from orchestrated pieces glued together.

In a way that’s what seems to be happening with the Penn State offense five games into the season. We have seen them let the air out of the football in some games, work more methodically down the field with quick passes in other games, and last night we saw them iron out a running game.

While it wasn’t a thing of beauty, I imagine it is quite similar to an artist trying to write that final stanza of their song. Fortunately for offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich, he has time to sculpt a smooth product because the offense is able to rely on a catchy and impressive chorus that is sung by the Penn State defense.

It’s a chorus that has been played over and over again in this young season–making their presence felt in every game. Most importantly, it’s a chorus that is able to be turned up in crucial moments, like a turnover on downs after the in-progress offense gave Indiana the football at Penn State’s 13 yard-line. It’s the part of the song that you can’t seem to get enough of and yet can’t exactly figure out why it sounds so good. Sure they have an impressive and explosive front seven supported by a opportunistic secondary, but the Penn State defense, especially in the red zone, is becoming a statistical anomaly–opposing offenses continue to blow tires when they enter the red zone.

I assume when you are writing a song and have found a chorus that is as good as the one Penn State has, the rest of the song becomes easier to forgive. It’s easier to let go of a sloppy third down percentage or poor short-yardage execution, when everyone is in love with defense. It also make it easier to work on the other parts of the song knowing you can rely on the defense. In a way, Penn State has been able to use the first half of the season to find their offensive identity, something I don’t think they have discovered quite yet.

But we do know some things.

We know that they aren’t going to turnover the football at the same clip they did in 2020. We know QB Sean Clifford is going to extend plays and for the most part, make the right decision. We know the offensive line is going to give Clifford time in the pocket to throw the ball, even if their run blocking continues to struggle. We know that Penn State has the best wide receiver in the Big Ten, and maybe in the country. We also know the person writing this part of the Penn State 2021 song has written great songs before.

The Penn State 2021 song isn’t finished being written–their identity isn’t cemented–but they have their chorus figured out, and against most teams, that might just be enough. And if they are able to finish writing the offensive part of the song, they might be a one-hit wonder.

Sean Clifford Shines In Penn State’s 28-20 White Out Win Over Auburn

“I’ve always believed I played better when the stakes were higher”–Quarterback Sean Clifford

The stakes had never been higher than what they were last night. With a rare SEC opponent, Auburn (2-0), entering Happy Valley for an early season White Out in primetime, the Penn State QB shined.

Talk surrounded Clifford and his counterpart, QB Bo Nix all week leading up to yesterday’s matchup. Everyone was wondering which inconsistent quarterback would step up and Clifford answered their questions with a methodical and precise performance.

Clifford’s final stats were emphatic: 28/32, 280 yards, 2 TDs through the air and 5 rushes for 24 yards on the ground. The only error was a intercepted pass before the half on which he was hit while he was throwing it. Otherwise, perfect.

Not only was he perfect, but offensive coordinator, Mike Yucich, called an almost perfect game. The playcalls and reads were designed to give his signal caller confidence early and often. Penn State hit numerous wide receiver screens early in the game, got their tight ends involved over the middle, killed Auburn underneath with the short passing game, and when they needed a big play they went to their best player, wide receiver Jahan Dotson.

But it all started with Sean Clifford. Clifford looked not only confident, but also patient in the pocket. The 3rd & 7 on the first drive of the game, where the offensive line protected him for eons was a good sign to come. The big boys up front protected Clifford all night long and didn’t allow a single sack–though the horrible intentional grounding called on Clifford was registered as a sack. With the time in the pocket to make the right decisions, Sean Clifford dissected the Auburn defense through the air.

Meanwhile, besides two well-timed back shoulder throws on third downs, Bo Nix couldn’t get anything going in the passing department. Fortunately for Auburn, the Tigers were able to ride star running back, Tank Bigsby for the majority of the game. However, as the game got into the late stages of the 4th quarter, Auburn still failed to throw the ball: sometimes because of inaccurate throws, sometimes because of hurried throws due to pressure, and sometimes Nix’s inexperienced receiving corps failed him.

Nix finished 21/37 for 185 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions–though Penn State’s defense was credited with at least 5 pass breakups, one of which was almost a pick-six by LB Brandon Smith right before the half. Head coach Bryan Harsin and his offensive coordinator Mike Bobo refused to open up the passing game for Nix even in obvious passing situations; for example, they decided to run the ball on third and long early in the game near midfield.

It was a tale of two different sidelines as Clifford and Co. continued to gain confidence with three 80 + TD drives, with the last one acting as the dagger. Bo Nix’s final two drives ended with two incompletions, one on a 4th and Goal dull endzone fade and the other as time expired. Both passes were defended by Penn State’s safety Jaquan Brisker, who has played as well as anyone in the country through three games.

I don’t think anyone but Sean Clifford saw this sort of impressive transformation in just a short few months working with Yurcich. And now with two of the tougher defenses Clifford will see this season out of the way, the sky appears to be the limit. Especially if they can find a way to run the ball more consistently.

Maybe we should start buying stock in Sean Clifford–we know he already has.

Nittany Lions Clean Things Up In 44-13 Win Over Ball State

“I am a hybrid” said DE/LB Jesse Luketa after his monstrous, 4 tackles, 0.5 TFL, interception for touchdown, performance. The former starting LB has made a smooth and impactful transition to the defensive line. A move that demonstrates the selfless attitude of this defense.

The defense set the tone once again on Saturday afternoon. This time grounding the Ball State Cardinals passing attack led by WR Justin Hall, who finished the game with 6 receptions for 35 yards and at least two drops. The defense was also able to force two interceptions and sacked the quarterback one time–an impressive feat when the ball was getting out of the opposing team’s quarterback’s hands fast.

Most importantly, the defense showed that their bend, but don’t break mentality, demonstrated against Wisconsin, was no fluke. They held Ball State to two short field goals, with the longest one being 24 yards. It wasn’t until the backups came in did the Cardinals find the end zone–aided by two 15-yd penalties.

And although the defense was impressive it was the offense that marched up and down the field all day long. In the first half they were able to score on their first three possessions, giving their defense a 17 point cushion. Quarterback Sean Clifford showed the ability to get the ball out quick, extend the play when he needed to, throw it away when he wasn’t comfortable throwing it into tight coverage, and he even broke a 41 yard run.

Yet again the offense did not turn the ball over, although RB Keyvone Lee did temporarily cough up the pigskin before falling back on it. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt since the backup averaged 8.5 yards per carry and was obviously the most violent runner for the Nittany Lions.

In the air, the Nittany Lions look more balanced than ever. Ten different Nittany Lions hauled in a pass, including a comforting six catch, 57 yard game by WR Parker Washington, who also had an impressive one-handed grab. WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith also had a difficult catch over the middle on a tight throw by Clifford.

The offense did stall some in the second half and Kicker Jordan Stout hasn’t necessarily relieved the pressure put on him after missing one 45 yard field goal attempt. But they didn’t do anything stupid and they didn’t show too much with the Auburn Tigers (2-0) coming to town for a College Game Day, White Out extravaganza.

Sometimes that’s all you need from your offense–don’t do anything stupid and move the ball–the Nittany Lions did that and more on Saturday. When your defense is playing with their hair on fire, complementary football will win you a majority of your games.

It’s yet to be seen how the offense will respond if the defense comes back down to earth, but for now they can rely on the “hybrid” and the mentality he has helped instill on this defense.

Penn State Nittany Lions Drop To Program-Worst 0-5

It’s quite astonishing isn’t it? In a storied program’s history, Penn State has never started 0-5–until yesterday. Saturday’s 41-21 defeat to the Iowa Hawkeyes will also snap a streak of winning seasons dating back to the 2004 season. That’s right. Through everything this football program has been through in the past decade this season is on pace to be the worst by far.

The worst part? It doesn’t seem to be getting better. As first reported by Hardcore College Football (@hardcorecfb) prior to the game, TE Pat Freiermuth is out for the season with a disclosed shoulder injury that will require surgery. I am hearing it is a labrum injury, which would make sense since the injury occurred during the Ohio State game and Freiermuth attempted to play with it during the past two games. The shoulder labrum is tricky because depending on the severity of the tear it might not even hurt him unless he does specific tasks. Regardless, he will have loss of range of motion and strength in that shoulder until it is surgically reattached. (I am no doctor, but I suffered a football-caused shoulder labrum injury myself)

Besides the injury of Penn State’s best remaining player, HC James Franklin and OC Kirk Ciarrocca decided to roll with backup QB Will Levis to start the game. Although he was able to pound his way down the field in his second series he suffered the same fate as his predecessor–the turnover bug. So Penn State brought QB Sean Clifford back into the game, where as Ben Jones put it perfectly, fit his entire game into one quarter–the good and the bad. With the turnovers still the glaring issue with this offense and the Will Levis experiment failing, where do they turn now?

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of the game was the defensive line. Although Shaka Toney flashed, the majority of the game saw the defensive line being backed right into their fellow teammates standing four yards behind them. Typically, Iowa’s ground & pound offensive is no match for Penn State defenses–that was not the case today as Kirk Ferentz grounded his offense to his 100th career Big Ten win.

Finally, the effort seemed worse again Saturday. It looked like they showed some fight in the Nebraska game that might translate into better effort for the remainder of the season, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, after getting down in the first half (again), it looked like this Penn State team was begging for mercy instead of clawing their way back. Even as Clifford had 2 strikes for 2 TDs on 2 plays, the momentum never felt to be in Penn State’s sole possession. The only thing I can think of is this team has to find a way to start faster and pray that the other team gifts some early mistakes. Otherwise, we may be in for more of the same.

Next is a trip to Ann Arbor to face the Wolverines, who in their own right are struggling after switching QBs after being down 17-0 to Rutgers. They fought their way back and put away the Scarlet Knights in triple overtime. If you stick to historical trends, don’t expect Penn State’s level of play to be better at Michigan, but it’s 2020 and maybe the Big House will serve these historically awful Nittany Lions well.

As Penn State Drops to 0-4 After A Loss To Nebraska, It’s Time To Approach The Remainder Of The Season Differently

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times–or even four times? Then what?

After the loss to Indiana, most fans and critics alike judged this Penn State football team still as a College Football Playoff Contender and a possible B1G Championship Contender. Even after losing to Ohio State at home, most analyzed this team, including me, from the perspective that this team is still supposed to be good if not great.

But now after dropping back-to-back games to not so good opponents in Maryland and Nebraska, it’s time to reevaluate how we assess this Penn State football team moving forward. I don’t mean we go easy on them or find excuses for them. I mean looking at this team with a different lens–from a lower level of expectations.

If you want to continue to judge this team as if they are near the top of the college football world, that’s your choice. But I am sick of writing the same gloomy column week in and week out. The storyline hasn’t changed.

Penn State came into this season unprepared and behind the chains. Did COVID-19 set them back? Of course it did, but it also was something every other program had to plan for. It was unfortunate that they lost Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Micah Parsons, and had to break in a new offensive coordinator, but that is no excuse for the product we have seen half way through the season.

So I could sit here and tell you all the things the coaching staff continued to do wrong on Saturday, like: continuing to defer the ball to the second half when the defense has shown no signs of life early in games, not pulling Sean Clifford after that awful interception, not giving Will Levis–or any other QB more first team reps in practice this week, kicking a 56-yd FG down three scores in the third quarter, down by just seven throwing three fade routes during a streak of eight continuous incomplete passes while a decent inside running game was working, and not obviously disciplining players for behavior penalties like the unnecessary roughness on Brandon Smith or the taunting by C.J. Thorpe.

But I think it’s time to look at the moral victories. Yes, if this team was in contention for B1G titles and more; moral victories would not be good enough, but the sad fact of the matter is: This team isn’t close to that right now. Most 0-4 programs are trying to take away things they can build off of for next season and that’s where this team should be. Punt this season, because there is only 2-3 winnable games left on this schedule and I find it hard to believe they win more than one due to the psyche of the team.

Therefore, let’s look at the positives. If you aren’t done being angry at this team and coaching staff, I understand, but my optimistic personality requires me to find something good to takeaway from Saturday:

  1. The team fought back. Again, after being down in the first half due to awful play and 10 points off turnovers, the team came back in the second half and played better. The offense got a spark from Will Levis and for a moment there it felt like this team was actually alive. When Penn State scored, the defense got a stop, and there was a solid punt return by Jahan Dotson; it was the first, full, good, team sequence in quite awhile.

2. The young guys show promise. Freshmen tailbacks Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee combined for 99 yards on the ground with just 12 carries. Both also had runs for over 30 yards. WR Parker Washington had some incredible catches late and racked up 5 receptions for 70 yards, while KeAndre Lambert-Smith had 3 catches for 35 yards. The offense as a whole racked up over 450 yards and did some nice things. With the weight of the 2021 season on these guys shoulders it was a pleasant to see them doing well in the reps they saw.

3. Defense showed moments. Overall a pretty sour day for Penn State’s defense that was aided by a Nebraska WR, who dropped an easy TD pass. But they did hold Nebraska under 300 total yards and finally got a turnover by way of a tipped ball caught by LB Brandon Smith. It was the first turnover since the Indiana game. Also DE Jayson Oweh and LB Jesse Luketa played well combining for 18 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 pass breakup and 1 QB hurry.

That’s really about it. Penn State yet again had chances to win the game, but turnovers, specifically the hideous interception and the scoop and score was too much for the Nittany Lions to overcome. It has been the plague that this Penn State team has yet to find a cure for.

Penn State Nittany Lions Head Into Uncharted, 0-3 Territory After 35-19 Loss to Maryland

The defense didn’t allow an offensive touchdown in the second half on Saturday. I bring this up first because I want to get any smidge of positivity out of the way. Because. Well. Penn State sucked on Saturday afternoon against Maryland.

In my fairly young career viewership of this Penn State program, I can think of no loss more miserable, more distasteful, and more disheartening than the one we all witnessed yesterday. Yes, yesterday was even worse than the 2015 Temple game.

Perhaps the reason for the disarray is twofold. It was obviously awful from preparation to execution, but what made matters worse is there seems to be no obvious remedy that is going to change anything soon. The problem at its core isn’t the level of talent, Penn State demolished Maryland 59-0 last year. The problem at its core isn’t coaching decisions, Penn State’s coaching staff won 11 games last year. The problem is a collection, an assortment of disastrous player attitudes, pregame preparations, in-game decisions, inability to “move on” from previous losses, and apparently distractions.

Let’s start with the player attitudes. When Penn State dropped to 0-2 their hopes of a CFP berth or even a B1G title appearance went out the window. There wasn’t anything tangible to play for–for a team that had national aspirations. We knew this could be a problem. But the good teams, no, the elite teams, coaches and players alike, find new things to be motivated by. The best teams don’t even need to be motivated because their discipline and the way they perfect their craft is what drives them. This coaching staff and players don’t display that right now. As a good friend would say, “they don’t have any dogs on this team”. It’s hard to disagree with him when gazing onto the field Saturday. The defense again came out without a chip on their solider and has now given up at least 30 points in the past four games spanning back to last year (which is a school record). The offensive line, which was supposed to be a stronghold for this team, is having their lunch money taken from them. So why is this happening? Can this group of blue chip-caliber players seriously find nothing to play for? I get it. It sucks you can’t win a Big Ten Championship. You lost to Ohio State, again. But play for the pride of the university. Play for the coaches you came to school for. Or, at the very least, play for the guys like Pat Freiermuth, who came back just to win something.

I now feel like a recording, but the pregame preparations continue to plague this program. Again, Penn State starts out slow in the first half. And now, instead of it just being an offensive problem, it appears to be a lethargic epidemic, spreading to the other side of the football. Infecting a Brent Pry group that we typically could count on. Sure they lost Micah Parsons, but is that really an excuse for the touted defensive line to be blown off the ball? Does Maryland catch you with a nice wrinkle to your man coverage on the first drive for a touchdown? Yes, fine, I will concede you one mistake. But how do you let them catch you in the same coverage on basically the same play again? To the same WR? Maryland doesn’t have the armada of five star athletes that Ohio State has, they had one 5 star WR on their team and preceded to gut you with him over and over again.

Everyone who said this weekend was going to be close cited the same trend as before; Penn State doesn’t play well after loses. After losing to Indiana they lost to Ohio State. Last year, after losing to Minnesota they lost to Ohio State. Previous years, after losing to Ohio State they lost to Michigan State. It’s always been a trend and it continues to be a trend. Why can’t the players move on? Why can’t the coaches move on? If a team is expected to go 1-0 each week, why does it seem like we are looking in the rearview mirror? Why can’t we move on and beat teams we are supposed to beat after losses?

Finally, this team is distracted according to wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who continues to be the only star shining bright on this otherwise black hole of a season. After the game, Dotson said this:

We are not as one right now. We’re not a unit right now. There are distractions that we shouldn’t be focused on right now. We’ve got to be focused on getting in the win column, nothing else. We’re not a good football team right now. We’ve gotta have everyone 100 percent bought in, and we’ve gotta work. Monday is a day off. We’ve gotta see every guy in the building. Literally from top to bottom, we’ve gotta see every guy in the building, just doing something to get better every single day. That’s where it’s gonna start. It’s gonna start tomorrow. We’ve gotta have everyone 100 percent bought in. We’re gonna see who really wants it. Who wants to be here, bought in. And if you don’t, there’s not time for that. We’re 0-3, it’s time to turn the season around, and we’ve got to do something different.

Pretty outspoken for one of the more quiet leaders on the team. They say the best teams are player-led, not coaches-led. Perhaps this is the beginning of that foundation, because if not, well…

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