Penn State football: Same old, same old is getting old. Ground was lost in win over Indiana.
Given yet another week to add some deceptive and effective wrinkles to his team’s limited offense, James Franklin could do nothing more than fake out a few media members and fans who should have known better.
* Slumping shoulders and tentatively raising my hand first … *
Before we get too far along here, I’d better get the formality out of the way: Penn State won on Saturday at Beaver Stadium, scoring the final 9 points of a 33-24 victory over 30.5-point underdog Indiana.
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It counts as a positive in the win column only. Otherwise, it’s the continuation of disturbing trends from both this year and all of Franklin’s 10 seasons fronting the program. This had all the markings of the losses to Michigan State in 2017 and 2018 that followed heartbreaking losses to Ohio State. The Nittany Lions don’t handle hangovers well.
The running joke …
Franklin tried to change the narrative midweek by suggesting that backup QB Beau Pribula might spend time on the field alongside starter Drew Allar, a look that could’ve opened up lanes for one of the least explosive running games in the nation. Alas, Pribula entered for all of 1 play, a late-game run that Allar watched from the sideline.
With no change to the scheme and the offensive line again looking average at best, Penn State ran 43 times for 132 yards. That’s 3.1 yards per carry, matching the horrendously bad ground game of 2021. Kaytron Allen took his turn leading the way, with 81 hard-earned yards on 18 carries.
Nick Singleton produced 50 yards on 15 carries. You remember Nick Singleton, right? No. 1 back in the 2022 recruiting class. Ran for more than 1,000 yards as a true freshman. Busted off runs of 40+ yards a B1G-best 7 times. Well, that same guy has now gone 8 straight games without topping 100 yards this season. His 20-yard run in last weekend’s 20-12 loss to Ohio State is his season high. Saturday? His long run went for 7 yards.
Credit Indiana? The Hoosiers entered the game ranked dead last in the B1G in run defense, allowing 174.4 yards per game and 4.66 per play. So no, don’t credit Indiana.
Blame offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. Or Franklin, if he’s the puppeteer orchestrating this dull, G-rated children’s show.
Getting Pribula, seemingly the top big-play running threat on the squad right now, on the field more often would help. Playing Singleton and Allen together more often would help, allowing for misdirection or lead blocking. Shifting tight ends into the backfield more often to serve as fullbacks would help. Ditching zone blocking for targeted run blocking would help. Running more behind purported NFL 1st-round pick LT Olu Fashanu would help. And Allar, who had a 10-yard scramble Saturday, needs to run a bit more. Sean Clifford and predecessor Trace McSorley both ran enough to keep defenses honest. Without a major change to the scheme, Penn State needs that element.
Is Allar a square peg?
Shortly after throwing his first interception as a Lion, Allar finally hit a deep ball for the first time since Week 1. His 57-yard TD strike to favorite/only WR target KeAndre Lambert-Smith finally, finally, finally took the top off the defense — and broke a 24-24 fourth-quarter tie.
Allar, a much-hyped 5-star recruit along with Singleton last year, finished 20-of-31 for 210 yards and 3 TDs. Nothing about those stats scream for a change, and his first pick might just free him up psychologically.
Basically, from Yurcich on down, the offense has been uptight all season. Safe and careful has kept turnovers to a minimum, but it’s not going to beat Michigan in 2 weeks. Whether Pribula or something else is the answer, this group needs to loosen up. And if Franklin and staff can’t pull the trigger against Indiana, then when?
Allar needs to regain the swagger he had on opening night against West Virginia, when he threw for 325 yards in his starting debut in front of more than 110,000 juiced up fans. At 20 career TD passes vs. 1 INT, he’s capable of doing his part. Line coach Phil Trautwein, Yurcich and Franklin need to give him a plan that trusts his upside and complements his skill set.
Where do Lions go from here?
A trip to stumbling Maryland — a 33-27 loser at Northwestern — and then a visit from the Wolverines await. Penn State wasted a week of preparation.
Assuming Manny Diaz’s defense can avoid major gaffes like the 2 long TD passes it gave up in the first half against the Hoosiers, the Lions should handle Maryland and maybe, just maybe, give the cheaters from Ann Arbor a battle. As of Saturday night, ESPN’s Matchup Predictor actually favored the Lions vs. the Wolverines, giving them a 50.1% chance of victory. Sure, check the algorithm, scratch your head … but … maybe? The Lions (7-1, 3-1) do have the game at home, and No. 2 Michigan will be 9-0 but still completely untested when Nov. 11 rolls around.
Diaz’s defense added 3 sacks for 37 yards to its B1G-best totals, with the pressure setting up 12 points — including a late-game safety that provided breathing room. Bad coverage and blown coverage led to 90- and 69-yard TD pass plays — only the 2nd and 3rd plays of 40+ yards against the Lions this season. Those breakdowns while blitzing seem more anomalous and fixable than the run game issues.
The question is, will Franklin stop with the smokescreens and word games and get busy along with Yurcich doing necessary tinkering to the ground attack. Two-thirds of the way through the season, time is running short.