Penn State football: So, uh, what now?
Penn State is unranked for the first time in 63 polls. The Lions are out of the College Football Playoff discussion before it ever really began. There’s no home crowd to energize and inspire a turnaround. What now?
“If you’re not motivated right now, then I don’t really want you on the team. That’s just a fact,” Sean Clifford said after Penn State dropped to 0-2. “If you’re not motivated off of two losses when your back’s against the wall, if you’re just somebody who’s gonna fold and say, ‘Alright, we’ll get ’em next year,’ I don’t want you here.”
In Clifford’s three previous seasons in Happy Valley, Penn State had never started a season worse than 4-0. The redshirt junior and his teammates had real title aspirations entering this year, but instead find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
The gulf between Penn State and Ohio State seems to have expanded again, but James Franklin’s team still has plenty to play for as the calendar turns to November. Tear off the October sheet and move on.
For starters, the schedule is about to get much easier. Penn State has 6 games remaining against Big Ten teams that have a combined record of 4-7, a crossover game against a team-to-be-named from the tepid Big Ten West and then, in all likelihood, a decent bowl game.
Penn State is probably entering the easiest 3-game stretch (vs. Maryland, at Nebraska, vs. Iowa) of its season, with Maryland being the only one of those teams with a win so far.
Mentally, maybe that will boost the Lions’ confidence.
Physically and strategically, on the football field, there’s still plenty to iron out.
The early flaws of Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense have already been beaten to death, mainly not using the running backs enough or allowing Clifford to call more short passes. But the defense has work to do, too, preparing for a Maryland team that had nearly 700 yards against Minnesota as Taulia Tagovailoa arrived on the B1G scene with 453 total yards and 5 touchdowns.
Not only did the Nittany Lions allow 526 yards of offense to the Buckeyes — the 5th-most under Franklin — but Ohio State also converted 10 of 18 3rd downs. A week earlier, Indiana marched 75 yards for a TD to end regulation and succeeded on 2-point conversions to tie the game and then win it in overtime.
Penn State’s defense is always near the top of the nation, but where are the game-changers this season? Micah Parsons would have been the lead guy, but players such as Lamont Wade and Shaka Toney should be answers, too.
Toney had stretches of brilliance against the Hoosiers but was silenced against Ohio State. The Nittany Lions have forced just 2 turnovers this season, and maybe the most exciting thing the defense has done to influence momentum was a Brandon Smith hit on Justin Fields in the 4th quarter Saturday night.
There’s also some work to be done on special teams. After years of Saquon Barkley and K.J. Hamler returning kicks, this season has been borderline disastrous by comparison with Wade fumbling a kick at the Penn State 5 against Indiana and then Parker Washington fair-catching kickoffs against the Buckeyes at the 5 and 4-yard lines. Kick returns are another potential area for game-changing plays that the team has been lacking.
There have been some improvements in mental errors in the first 2 games, with Penn State halving its total penalties from 10 to 5, but there have still been some less than ideal moments like late hits out of bounds or running players late onto the field even after a timeout.
Starting 0-2 is not the end of the world. Penn State has outscored Maryland 163-6 in the last 3 meetings, and who knows whether the Terrapins trot out the team that beat Minnesota or lost by 40 points to Northwestern.
“We got to move on. There’s no looking back,” Jahan Dotson said after the loss to Ohio State. “You only get one opportunity at the games.”
Time will tell if Penn State takes that opportunity and puts its season back on track. There’s plenty of room for improvement, but Penn State is not down and out.