Penn State football: Is epic failure better than salvaging mediocrity?
At least 0-5 keeps Penn State relevant.
The worst start in 134 years of Nittany Lions football attracts attention. Any publicity is good publicity, right?
ESPN will be talking about Penn State tonight! Who can resist a heavily involved dumpster fire? That’s what the Lions looked like Saturday afternoon in a 41-21 home loss to Iowa.
The Lions’ situation reminds me of 1988, when my Baltimore Orioles — a team I had followed from my early childhood in the 1970s — started the season with 21 straight losses. By the time the streak hit double digits, I was rooting for it to continue. Once they finally won, there was no reason whatsoever to follow the O’s. But before they finally beat the White Sox at Comiskey Park in late April, no one could turn their eyes away.
Well, here we are, Penn State fans. Admit it, you can’t turn away. No matter how many failed fourth-down conversions (2 more on Saturday), no matter how many turnovers (4), no matter how many vaguely-explained roster moves, you’re in this until the end. Or at least until the first victory.
But then what? Is this a one-year aberration? There are reasons to think the problems run deeper than a 2020 malaise run amok. I listed several of the problems last week. Several more things have cropped up since then.
It’s been nothing but bad vibes coming out of State College lately.
A couple days ago, ESPN rehashed a story concerning bad blood in the PSU football locker room in 2018 that allegedly culminated in a fight between former Nittany Lions players Micah Parson and Isaiah Humphries. At best, it was silly hazing that got out of hand. At worst, it was the team’s best player, Parsons, creating division within the program and perhaps contributing the the mass exodus of players through the transfer portal starting in 2019.
Either way, it puts Penn State in bad headlines again. And the men’s basketball program is generating its own negative attention, losing three key recruits after jettisoning the head coach.
At Beaver Stadium on Saturday, the all-too-familiar 2020 football team got pushed around, again, epitomized by Iowa QB Spencer Petras’ 3-yard touchdown run that pushed the Hawkeyes’ lead to 31-7 early in the third quarter. Penn State made an initial stop, but Iowa won the ensuing scrum by pushing Petras 5 yards deep into the end zone.
That was the story of the day. The game was one-sided at the line of scrimmage. Iowa did nothing special, just pounded away. The Hawkeyes ran for 175 yards on the day, the Lions for 62.
Even during their now patented too-little, too-late rally, the Lions’ hiccups continued. They had a missed extra point that looked equal parts Bad News Bears and Charlie Brown.
They are not this bad. A wise old football coach once said that a team is never as good as it looks when it’s winning, and never as bad as it looks when it’s losing.
But they probably do have to hit rock bottom before recovery is possible.
James Franklin has a program in transition — four new assistant coaches, three of them on the offensive staff — in the worst possible year for such turnover.
In his sessions with the media, the head coach says the all right things, taking blame upon himself and insisting he doesn’t want to make excuses. But he seems as lost for real answers as anyone.
Starting Will Levis at quarterback didn’t work Saturday. Going back to Sean Clifford, well, Iowa DT Daviyon Nixon liked that one — he enjoyed it for all 71 yards of his interception return for the game’s final touchdown. The 305-pound lineman seemed much more determined to reach the end zone than any Nittany Lion was to stop him.
The squad seems broken — in spirit, in confidence, in toughness.
Franklin’s 10-year resume as a head coach is headlined by two reclamation projects — Vanderbilt 2011-13, Penn State 2014-16. Maybe he’ll stick around to do it again. Maybe that’s what the administration wants. Maybe he and his revamped staff know how to fix this for 2021.
One thing is for sure: If they pull it off, it’ll make for one heck of a story.
“In 2020, they were the worst football team in Penn State history, then …”