Penn State football: So many likeable players, such an unlikeable team
They seem like good dudes. It’s easy to root for them. The members of this 2021 version of the Penn State football team present themselves well. They compete. Many of them more than hold their own on the field.
And yet, something is surely missing. Something is wrong beyond the terribly weak offensive line and mediocre running backs.
What gives? How can the whole look like so much less than the sum of the parts?
Something was lost when quarterback Sean Clifford got knocked out of the Iowa game with his unbeaten, No. 4 team leading 17-3 on Oct. 9. Clifford has returned; whatever that “something” is has not.
The team that stopped 2 late-game Wisconsin drives to preserve a 16-10 victory in the opener would not have lost to Michigan the way Penn State did on Saturday. Nor the team that held off Auburn 28-20 in Week 3.
But the swagger is gone. The Nittany Lions are playing out the string.
This team can’t play 60 minutes of solid football. No stamina. It doesn’t hold up physically or mentally through the course of a tough game. It can’t seem to handle adversity or prosperity with the game clock dwindling.
Penn State earned itself a lot of good will during its season-opening 5-game winning streak. Transfer DE Arnold Ebiketie (2 sacks Saturday) endeared himself to fans from Play 1, and safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown did likewise with victory-preserving interceptions in Weeks 1 and 3. Linebacker Ellis Brooks (16 tackles Saturday) has been a monster in the middle, and Brandon Smith and Curtis Jacobs have flanked him well. Jesse Luketa has flourished in his new hybrid DE-LB position. A gritty Clifford and NFL-ready Jahan Dotson battle to the final whistle on offense.
But collectively, these Lions seem soft — and not just the guys up front. Collectively, their caring can be questioned. Collectively, they fold in the most crucial moments of a game. Collectively, they can’t finish — a block, a drive, a game, a season.
According to Penn State’s official website, 109,534 fans jammed into Beaver Stadium to see Penn State improbably rally in the fourth quarter but then immediately fall apart in its 21-17 loss to Michigan. Those fans braved temperatures in the 30s and a mix of rain and snow to root on a now 4-loss team to the bitter end. Did this team send them home disappointed because it’s simply not good enough? Or are other factors in play?
Trying to psychoanalyze a football team from the sideline seems like a fool’s game. But the players don’t seem to be getting much help from the guys on the sideline who are supposed to be leading the program. So call me a fool. Here are a few guesses as to why this season has become a slog and this team has become painfully predictable to watch.
That “here we go again” feeling can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. From the stands and in front of TV screens, fans can’t help but sense it. Maybe the guys on the field do too. How else to explain a top-10 scoring defense becoming a sieve instantaneously after Penn State takes a 17-14 lead with a 10-point surge midway through the fourth quarter.
Michigan went 75 yards in 6 plays, doing absolutely nothing fancy. Hassan Haskins ran 5 straight times, netting 28 yards and 2 first downs, and then Cade McNamara hit Erick All on a short crossing route. The tight end turned the corner and outran multiple Penn State defenders for a 47-yard touchdown. Tired? Uninspired? You tell me.
Michigan’s game-winning touchdown looked a lot like Iowa’s game-winner that sent Penn State into its malaise 5 weeks ago. Both plays appeared to involve blown coverage, as both Michigan’s All and Iowa’s Nico Ragaini wound up wide open on plays that went 40-some yards to the end zone.
Earlier in the game, left tackle Rasheed Walker — supposedly Penn State’s best offensive lineman — had a gaffe that I’ll chalk up as a mental mistake. The other option is that he just doesn’t give a crap, which might be true of the whole unit, but who can know. Anyway, Walker grazed a pass rusher and slipped out into the flat as if he was setting up a screen pass. Turns out, he was the only Lion in the left flat and sold the play so well that Clifford threw the ball to him. My immediate thought was that Penn State had run a tackle-eligible play, but no, Clifford was called for intentional grounding.
Speaking of Clifford, he seems to get flustered at times. That’s understandable considering he was harassed all day and sacked 7 times. He’s spent the past 4 games running for his life, getting sacked 18 times in that span. So maybe it’s not surprising that he goes through rough patches where he can’t connect on safe, short throws. His 20th and final incompletion Saturday, though, was an inexcusable throw — he put up a uncatchable ball on fourth down on Penn State’s final offensive play. He didn’t even give Cam Sullivan-Brown a chance.
Has Franklin checked out?
After Michigan retook the lead, Penn State still had plenty of time to respond, with more than 3 minutes remaining. The latest episode of bizarre play-calling ensued. Head coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich treated the series like it was garbage time. After committing to a struggling ground game to the tune of 42 carries, Penn State went with 4 straight pass plays. After running a successful fake punt and a failed fake field goal early in the game, the coaches were apparently all out of tricks.
Not only did Clifford throw 4 straight times, he targeted reserve receivers on 3 of the plays and Dotson only once. Two of the throws went to Sullivan-Brown, who has all of 4 catches this season, none of them coming on Saturday. The lone connection went for 8 yards to freshman Malick Meiga, his 2nd career catch.
Penn State went 4-and-out in 38 seconds while targeting 4th and 5th receivers with bland play-calls. Jim Harbaugh should be getting thank you cards in the mail come Monday; Michigan got a gift.
Maybe Franklin is making it easier for the administration to let him slink off to USC after the season. If he’s not leaving, he’ll have more detractors among the faithful than ever before when he begins his 9th season in State College next fall. He may even have to win back some of the guys who take the field on Saturdays.
Saturday’s turnout suggests a ton of diehard fans think spoiling Michigan’s CFP quest and chasing a NY6 bowl bid were worth Penn State’s effort.
The team gave that effort early, completely dominating the first quarter, producing the game’s first 10 first downs and running 33 plays to Michigan’s 6. But all that effort yielded only 3 points, and Penn State sputtered mightily once the Wolverines finally engaged.
After having head starts of 130 yards, 10 first downs and 10-plus minutes of possession, Penn State lost all those battles. Credit Michigan all you want, but the Lions ran out of mental, physical and emotional gas too.
Future in doubt
Penn State’s immediate task is to avoid a 2nd straight losing season (preferably not by turning down a bowl bid). Rutgers visits next Saturday, and it is 5-5 after a 38-3 romp over Indiana. Under Greg Schiano, the Scarlet Knights will show up highly motivated to take down a blue blood program and gain bowl eligibility.
The Lions should outclass Rutgers, assuming they can maintain their interest and focus for 60 minutes. Don’t count on it.
Beyond this season, Penn State faces nothing but questions. Franklin’s status is uncertain, which is worrisome with the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class set to start arriving on campus in a couple months. Half to two-thirds of this team’s key players will be gone next year.
The coaching staff includes a bunch of first- and second-year assistants. This is a team in transition, even if the worst-imagined turmoil doesn’t materialize. Barring a big influx of transfers — especially offensive linemen — Penn State won’t be competing for the big prize in the Big Ten before 2023 at the earliest. Even then, the program will have to find an identity that includes more grit and fortitude than it has shown while going 9-11 against league competition since November of 2019.
From top to bottom, something needs to change. Maybe a lot of things need to change. Collectively, the Lions will need to rediscover program staples such as toughness, heart, poise and discipline. Collectively, they should strive to be a likeable bunch worthy of the support they get even on the worst of days.