No silver linings: Penn State's latest loss mirrors the previous 3 as the program matches its worst start ever
Silver linings and moral victories don’t exist. Not when you’re Penn State and you’re 0-4. Nebraska is a middling Big Ten team at best and held a 21-point lead on two occasions Saturday.
What happened in Lincoln was no anomaly. For the fifth straight game, Penn State has allowed at least 30 points. Dating back to Nov. 9, 2019, when P.J. Fleck rowed his Minnesota Gophers past the Lions, Penn State is 3-6. A once proud program sits in the cellar of the Big Ten as the league’s lone winless team. The Lions now belong in the same sentence with Illinois and Rutgers rather than with nemesis Ohio State.
There’s no question that Will Levis, subbing in for turnover-prone Sean Clifford at quarterback, provided a spark. He led Penn State to 400 yards of offense in a little less than 3 quarters, and the otherwise emotionless Lions were resuscitated by the sophomore’s toughness running the ball. Penn State nearly mounted the largest comeback in program history before succumbing 30-23.
But by the time Clifford was benched, the damage had already been done. Two early turnovers leading to 10 Nebraska points eliminated any mojo that this Penn State team still clung to after an already disastrous 0-3 start.
“All of us, the head coach and every assistant in the program, obviously we’re not doing a good enough job,” James Franklin said after the game. “That starts with me. In every single area it can be better. We’ve all got to do our jobs.”
Since 2000, Penn State had never lost a game in which it had over 450 yards off offense and held the opposition to fewer than 300 yards. It’s done so twice this year. There is no shortage of reasons for Penn State’s wayward season, but perhaps the biggest culprit that reared its head again was the offense’s red zone woes.
The Lions ran 25 plays inside the Nebraska 20-yard line that weren’t kicks. Those red-zone trips netted a single touchdown — on the trip that started from Nebraska’s 1 following a 74-yard Pat Freiermuth catch and run. Penn State has scored a touchdown on just 8 of 19 trips to the red zone this year.
But what’s more frustrating than just a simple inability to score is the play-calling involved at the goal line.
On 3 trips inside the Nebraska 15 in the second half, Penn State ran 11 plays outside of a Jake Pinegar field goal. Of the 11, not a single one went for positive yardage. There were 2 runs for no gain, 2 for lost yardage and 7 incomplete passes. What’s worse is that on multiple occasions, the call was for Levis to throw a fade to the back of the end zone to 5-foot-10 Parker Washington.
New OC Kirk Ciarrocca was supposed to be an offensive wizard. Granted, he had no offseason to install his system and the unit is down its top 2 running backs. But even so, the struggles to this point are inexcusable. The team continually puts up high-yardage box scores, but it never seems to translate to points.
It doesn’t help that Clifford lost any semblance of confidence prior to this game and missed a wide-open Brenton Strange in the end zone against the Cornhuskers, but the red-zone play-calling still remained mystifying with Levis at the helm, too. Cranking out 501 yards does little when the offense perpetually flounders in critical moments.
Penn State is just the fourth team ranked inside the top-10 of the AP preseason poll to start a season 0-4, almost too perfectly on script for the Lions, who can’t seem to get out of their own way in the first half of games.
The Lions have been outscored 93-26 in the first half this year and have faced deficits dating back to halftime at Indiana of 10, 18, 21 and 21 points. Penn State has outscored opponents 76 to 46 in the second half, but it’s been too little, too late — a theme that may be emblematic of how the rest of this season will play out.
This game was do or die for both programs. Nebraska did. Penn State died. The Lions showed some spirit under Levis, but they still had the floor yanked out from under them in the end.
An Iowa team rolling off of 42- and 28-point victories in consecutive weeks awaits Penn State in Week 5. The Nittany Lions have never started a season 0-5, not once in 126 previous seasons. This year’s start matches the 2001 team’s start, the only previous time 0-4 has happened.
Perhaps there’s light at the end of the tunnel in a trip to Michigan the week after Iowa visits Beaver Stadium. But if Penn State has shown proof of anything this season, it’s that no result is guaranteed.
There will be no shortage of questions this week about who Franklin goes with at QB going forward, what’s wrong with DC Brent Pry’s group, and the impact this abnormal season will have on the program in seasons to come. But the present reality is that the Lions are in need of a heck of a second-half (of the season) comeback.
“It sucks right now, but none of us are going to stop fighting,” Levis said. “The season isn’t over until it’s over. … We’re not going to let what has happened in the past define our future.”
Whether that type of mentality translates to wins remains undetermined. The Lions showed some life this week, but 0-4 is 0-4, a complete disappointment.