Penn State football: Let's be frank, this is the lowest point yet under James Franklin
James Franklin spent the better part of his first 6 seasons at Penn State attempting to close the program’s distance from Ohio State, the gap between great and elite, as he put it. What he wouldn’t do now to just be good.
The Nittany Lions are 0-3 for the first time since 2001 and lost their first 3 Big Ten games for the first time in 16 years. A loss to Ohio State was expected. A loss to Indiana was a possibility. But a loss to Maryland, a team Penn State had outscored 201 to 20 in the last four years, that was never even a thought.
“We need to get it fixed, and we need to fix it fast,” was the sentiment voiced by Franklin after Saturday’s 35-19 home loss, only there just may be no quick solution in 2020 for Penn State.
Maryland’s victory wasn’t just a win, it was a statement. It was a statement that could have lasting ramifications for Penn State. It could also be a warning signal of how inept the Lions may be this year in certain aspects of the game.
For starters, Sean Clifford remains enigmatic. He had far too many misfires in the first half, frequently overthrowing his receivers. Overthrows were an issue in the Indiana game and again vs. Maryland. Clifford missed on 14 of his first 20 passes, threw 2 interceptions, had a fumble returned for a touchdown and was sacked 7 times.
What’s worse than that is that Franklin and Kirk Ciarrocca never gave Will Levis or another backup even a sniff of the field. Instead Clifford completed 27 of a program-record 57 attempts. Coaches don’t like to instigate a QB controversy, but there probably won’t be a stronger case for a backup to pick up some reps than there was against Maryland.
The running game, again, was a complete no show. The loss of Journey Brown and Noah Cain can only excuse so much. The offensive line was supposed to be one of the best in the Big Ten, and instead has played like the line Christian Hackenberg had to deal with as again Penn State rushed for fewer than 100 yards. Clifford spent more time on the grass than on his feet.
Defensively, the absence of a single player can also not be the lone excuse. Maryland had 335 yards at the half. Taulia Tagovailoa did exactly what Penn State expected him to do. He locked in on quick passes, but Penn State never was able to really pressure the sophomore QB, and Maryland receivers had a field day racking up yards after the catch.
In terms of the season, there’s still no reason to think Penn State will finish below .500, but Franklin is going to have his hands full keeping the train on the tracks. I’m not suggesting it will be a problem in Happy Valley, but it has become increasingly popular in the last two weeks for star players on losing teams to opt out (i.e. quit) and prepare for the draft. What is there really to be had for a guy like Pat Freiermuth to play for a 5-4 Penn State team?
But in the bigger picture, this Maryland game may come back to bite Franklin and the type of program he is trying to build. Maryland likes to think of itself as a rival to Penn State, but that was never the case because the Terrapins were never in the same stratosphere when it came to the level of on-field play.
But the type of domination Maryland had over the Lions on Saturday will 100% be the opening sentence of every letter Mike Locksley sends to any recruit in the Mid-Atlantic. Locksley is building something in the DMV and already has a recruiting class in 2021 that is better than Penn State’s.
A microcosm of Penn State’s night was Class of 2021 4-star safety and Pennsylvania native Derrick Davis Jr. —favored to commit to the Lions — committing to LSU while the Lions where staring down a multiple-score deficit to the Terrapins. With Davis’ pledge to the Tigers, Penn State has now missed out on all 10 of the top PA recruits in the Class of ’21, including losing 2 to intra-state foe Pittsburgh.
Adding insult to injury, Maryland’s social media team completely ravaged Penn State.
🚨 KEY RACE ALERT 🚨 pic.twitter.com/Bl4DOBAVd3
— Maryland Terrapins (@umterps) November 7, 2020
SAD VALLEY. pic.twitter.com/MLvELL9lf7
— Maryland Football (@TerpsFootball) November 7, 2020
In a matter of 4 hours, an 0-2 season with room for optimism turned to one teetering on the edge of disaster. There will be time to discuss the gems Penn State appears to have in Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, but not in the immediate wake of a whistle-to-whistle domination by a program that historically has no business providing a scare.
Fans will call for Franklin’s job, but he’s nowhere near the predicament Jim Harbaugh finds himself in. His teams have had their backs against the wall before, but this is undoubtedly his greatest test yet. The distance to elite has never been greater.