Penn State football: The biggest issues on a long, LONG list of problems
James Franklin released his weekly Nebraska tweet on Sunday night, and the ensuing comments section quickly became a toxic place.
That is reality in 2020 for the Nittany Lions as Penn State looks to dig itself out of an 0-3 hole Saturday at Nebraska. If there were only one or two problems with this team — a single stat or problematic tendency — the Lions probably wouldn’t be in the predicament they find themselves in.
Instead, there’s a laundry list of things that need to be fixed, none of which, ironically, is the receiving corps that was thought to be the only thing holding this team back from national title aspirations.
While the list is long, and none of it seems fixable overnight, these are the 4 biggest problems:
Quite frankly, this may be the biggest issue given how far and how quickly the team has fallen from preseason expectations. Jahan Dotson said it best following the Maryland game:
“We’re going to see who really wants it, who wants to be here, who wants to be bought-in. If you don’t, there’s no time for that right now. … Right now, we have a lot of individuals. A lot of guys thinking about things that they shouldn’t be thinking about right now.”
In my time covering Penn State this has never been an issue before; things have always been pretty rosy since Franklin arrived. The worst thing to happen was an occasional 2-game losing streak.
But this season is different. Insulated and isolated like never before, the Nittany Lions seem to be struggling with the dynamics of 2020 worse than most programs. In a worst-case scenario, that could lead for further problems.
There’s really nothing stopping potential NFL draft picks from just calling it quits and putting Penn State in an even bigger predicament. The team that played on Saturday looked uninspired and disinterested, and that was before the record ticked to 0-3.
Penn State’s leaders need to come together this week and rally everyone together, because Nebraska is a very losable game at this point, and the program has never needed a win more in the last 5 years than it does right now.
Fix the offensive line, and maybe the run game will follow? The Lions lost just one starter on the line from 2019, and Phil Trautwein was expected to make this Penn State’s strongest group under Franklin. Instead Penn State is still rotating 7 players up front, and rushers are moving by them with ease.
Sean Clifford has been sacked 13 times. He’d likely cut down the number of egregious overthrows if he didn’t have a ticking detonator in his mind waiting for the next defensive lineman to blow him up.
Penn State ranks 11th in the Big Ten with less than 3.4 yards a carry. Last season the Lions ranked 2nd, averaging 4.9 yards. Obviously the 4-headed attack in 2019 of Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford has been reduced to only Ford, but the line is supposedly better this year. There’s zero excuse for Clifford being the team’s leading rusher 3 weeks into the season. A 23-yard run by Ford is the longest play of the season by a running back.
“We weren’t sustaining blocks,” Franklin said on Saturday. “You know, we haven’t been able to break tackles consistently and make people miss consistently. It’s been similar for the first couple weeks. We’re not able to put people in conflict with the RPO stuff because there’s not enough respect and concern for the running game right now.”
Penn State is no stranger to offensive line woes, but personnel has historically been the issue. That’s supposedly not the case this season, so the struggles are confounding.
After all the preseason hype and accolades bestowed upon DEs Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney, they’ve been all but M.I.A. for the last two weeks.
Other than for 2 sacks against Indiana, Toney hasn’t made much of an impact this year. He didn’t register a single tackle against Maryland.
Oweh was electric in stretches against Indiana and led the team with 10 tackles against the Terrapins, but he has yet to record a sack.
The defense knew it had to get pressure on Taulia Tagovailoa, but it failed to do so, and he had a field day picking the secondary apart on crossing routes.
Brent Pry’s defense has made a habit of feasting on QBs in seasons past, but this year the energy has waned.
Through 3 games, Penn State’s defense has generated 1 fumble recovery and 1 interception. This was supposed to be a year for Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade to boost their stats and showcase to NFL scouts why they merit a higher draft grade. Instead the secondary has given up 8 passing touchdowns.
It’s somewhat defensible to get burned by Justin Fields and his elite arsenal of receivers, but getting beat by a sophomore QB twice on literally the same exact play, well … that shouldn’t be happening with the group of veterans Penn State has in its pass defense.
The Lions have allowed 5 passing touchdowns of at least 25 yards. What’s worse, fans haven’t been able to see the turnover Thank You card since opening day in Bloomington.
Turnover chains are lame. Penn State has a turnover Thank You card? pic.twitter.com/iBkRmITRi1
— Thomas Schlarp (@TSchlarp) October 24, 2020
This unit should be inspiring momentum with game-changing plays. It has been, but for the other team.