Apathy Valley? Penn State's biggest battle will be keeping interest in wayward year
It’s been a strange year for Penn State. How strange?
With 4:09 remaining in the 3rd quarter — 409 being the number of wins by Joe Paterno — former starting quarterback Sean Clifford threw a touchdown pass to new starting tight end Brenton Strange — who is the next man up after the loss of All-American Pat Freiermuth for the season — as Penn State’s former 3rd-string running back, turned starter, Devyn Ford, watched from the locker room. Strange indeed.
The Lions dropped to 0-5 for the first time in program history and became the first team ever ranked in the preseason AP Top 10 to lose its first 5 games. If only the cardboard cutouts could talk.
While the “fans” have no decision to call it quits this season, the players have a much more real choice to make as their season continues to come unhinged.
“We’ve got to stick together as a family and as a team and stay positive,” James Franklin said after the 41-21 loss to Iowa. “We’re being challenged right now. We’ve had to learn how to handle success, and now we’re having to learn how to handle adversity. It’s even more challenging when they don’t have the typical support system around them.”
The Indiana game could have gone either way. Ohio State was expected. Maryland was an outlier. But losing to Nebraska and Iowa in back-to-back weeks brings an all too ugly reality that the program has never faced before. Even in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky fallout, while under some of the most severe NCAA sanctions and scholarship reductions, Penn State never had a losing season. The conditions aren’t ideal today, but Penn State will finish below .500 for the first time since 2004.
As quickly as Clifford injected some sort of positivity into the game, it was erased equally as swiftly with his 7th interception of the season. His lack of an effort to wrap up Daviyon Nixon en route to a touchdown, the third straight game in which a Clifford turnover was returned for 6, is emblematic of the scenario unfolding within the locker room.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 21, 2020
It’s one thing to play inspired football when you’re embarrassed, but that ship has sailed. It’s no longer a compelling story for media to talk about how poorly the Lions are performing. It’s habitual now. You are what your record says you are, and Penn State is playing like an 0-5 team. The Lions aren’t on the cusp of a 2018 Michigan-esque “revenge tour.” There’s a real feeling of despair, and a sense of growing apathy.
“It’s really been like that all year long, and it’s been challenging, there’s no doubt about it,” Franklin said. “But again, this is kind of where we’re at, this is what we’re dealing with and we’ve got to find a way through it.”
Look no further than Franklin’s decision to punt on 4th-and-17 trailing 34-21 with 3:19 left. There’s not much in the playbook to pick up that type of yardage, but electing to punt is quite literally a metaphor for punting on the season.
The Lions are now down their three best players in Freiermuth, Micah Parsons and Journey Brown and have an even bigger question at quarterback than they did a week ago. Franklin never lost more than 3 games in a row at Vanderbilt. These are unchartered waters, and there’s no sign of relent.
It will likely be another COVID-19 impacted offseason, limiting just how aggressively coaches will be able to implement change and correct issues. The 2021 recruiting class is a bust by Franklin standards, and the Lions open up the 2021 season with games against Wisconsin, Ball State and Auburn. There’s no telling when the light emerges at the end of the tunnel.
Oh what a Penn State fan wouldn’t give for the days when the biggest problem was receivers dropping passes.
This season has been a categorical disaster, but at least it’s now to the extent that no one’s watching. Only three Power 5 teams that have played at least 5 games are winless. Penn State is in the exclusive club with Kansas and Vanderbilt.
If there has been one bright spot to the season, it’s been the revelation of how talented Jahan Dotson is after catching another 8 passes for 139 yards against the Hawkeyes. And while he was the first Lion to point out a potential fracture in the locker room, he’s one of the few playing like there’s something on the line.
“We have to win the week, win the day, win the moment,” Dotson said. “We have to start doing things with a winner’s mentality.”
Until they do, it’s just rinse and repeat. But hey, who cares?