Not even sure where to begin today, so let’s start where maybe we always should. With the obvious…
1.) Penn State, right now, feels a lot different than Penn State, last week.
OK, so we’re talking about an 0-4 team here, and that’s an absolute rarity for Penn State. Most fans have only ever experienced that once, back in 2001. And that team, if I recall correctly, wasn’t expected to be a contender in the Big Ten anyway. An 0-4 start in a season that had any kind of promise, at all, is absolutely a foreign feeling for Nittany Lions fans. And, judging by the reaction on social media, they aren’t handling it well.
Not sure I’d expect you to, and I’m sure you don’t want someone like me looking long-term when it’s so difficult to stomach the near-term. But, Penn State post-Nebraska kind of feels like it’s at a moment where it has taken a deep breath and do something it really needs to do right now.
Look to the future.
There are some incontrovertible facts around this team right now that I think a fan can look at and take the same kind of deep breath:
- Their younger players are getting better.
- The running backs, who really are a sophomore who didn’t play much last year and two true freshmen, looked pretty good against Nebraska. And, I think you can make the argument that they’ve all gotten better incrementally the last few weeks. Devyn Ford had some tough runs against Nebraska, churned out a few extra yards when he needed them. Caziah Holmes broke a really nice, long run. Keyvonne Lee looks like he’ll be a good compliment to both of them as a bruiser.
- The receivers are keepers. I can’t believe someone in Texas didn’t work really hard to keep Parker Washington in state. He’s going to be a stud. KeAndre Lambert-Smith is clearly just scratching the surface. And Jahan Dotson is Jahan Dotson. I even think they’re getting a little more out of Daniel George. They’re one or two guys away from being outstanding here, moving forward.
- I thought Brenton Strange played his best game at tight end.
- Caedan Wallace looked really good at right tackle.
It’s difficult to look at 2021 right now. I get that. It seems like a cop out. And certainly, I don’t think this team can go 0-9 and get anything positive out of it moving into next year.
That said, they’re going to add Noah Cain back to that running back group. They’re going to lose WIll Fries and Michal Menet up front, but Juice Scruggs is getting plenty of playing time and has looked OK, so it’s almost certain Penn State will bring five experienced linemen back next year, with an actual full year with a very respected Phil Trautwein as their position coach. The tight ends, even if Pat Freiermuth leaves for the NFL as everyone expects, will still be plenty deep.
Nobody wants to hear excuses for what’s happening now. But this is a program that had two new position coaches and a new coordinator on offense in 2020. Everything was going to be kind of new anyway in a year when they didn’t have spring ball, didn’t have summer camps, didn’t even think it was going to play for a while and once it did get to play, didn’t have its best player — and, maybe, its second-best player after the first series of the first game.
There’s reason to think this is all going to be a lot better next fall, which is all a very crafty and creative way to bring up why these next five games are so important…
2.) Penn State has a long-term quarterback issue. And it needs to solve it.
This is why I bring up all that stuff earlier on about looking at the future and seeing the big picture, even when that feels like I’m copping out on talking about the struggles in the present term.
The rest of this season should solely be about figuring out who the quarterback is going forward. And, if he’s even on the roster.
James Franklin and Sean Clifford have been fond of saying this year that “the ball is the program.” Honestly, the quarterback is the program. That’s everywhere. Look at all the programs right now who have a shot to be national champion. They all have a really good quarterback, be it Justin Fields or Mac Jones or Ian Book or Trevor Lawrence or Kyle Trask or even Zach Wilson or Michael Penix.
We’ve all seen the numbers. We’ve all seen the play. The turnovers have been a pattern, and frankly, he wasn’t making the positive steps forward that you’d expect of a kid settling into the position, into the offense. I mean, the last game you can honestly say that Clifford was really, really good all around was the Michigan State game last year where he threw four touchdown passes. He struggled with his accuracy and turnovers against Minnesota in Penn State’s next outing, was OK against Indiana, was injured against Ohio State, didn’t play against Rutgers, was only OK against Memphis with the running game saving the day…and then this year. That’s basically more than a year’s time and eight games in which he wasn’t better than OK, never mind dominant. Sure, he had his moments. But all in all, you need better consistency from the position, which is why he was on the bench 20 minutes into the Nebraska game and should have been there late against Maryland, too. It was time.
Of course, it’s time to give Will Levis a look. And trust me, I think the guy has every tool to be really good. Thought that about Tommy Stevens too, though, and Stevens never got to that really good level.
Frankly, Levis doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, for me. He did two things really well Saturday; one we’ll get to later, but the first is take care of the football. Penn State didn’t turn the ball over with Levis in the game and, lo and behold, outscored Nebraska 20-6.
The problem is, it should have been more lopsided. Penn State ran 20 plays inside the Nebraska red zone with Levis under center and gained just 28 yards (which isn’t counting the 15 yards CJ Thorpe cost them, which again, we’ll talk about later). That’s stunning, considering that Levis’ skill set indicates he should be a pretty good red zone weapon; remember, it looked in the Indiana game like they were planning to use him as such.
We now have three games where Levis has started or played extensive meaningful minutes — vs. Ohio State and Rutgers last year and Saturday against Nebraska. And his stat line in those games is concerning.
He has completed 28 of 56 passes for 357 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He has also been sacked nine times in what amounts to something like 8 1/2 to 9 quarters.
You know what taking too many sacks leads to? Ask Sean Clifford.
Granted, Levis’ rushing numbers are pretty good in those games. Like, 53 rushes for 230 yards. Take away sack yardage which is stupidly factored in there, and he’s moving the ball at a pretty good clip. There’s a benefit to that, of course (and, you know…we’ll discuss that later, too).
But, you’re not a running back. You’re the quarterback, and you have to be able to sling it. You have to make plays through the air, especially in this offense. And let’s face it, Kirk Ciarrocca’s history isn’t one where he relies on the quarterback to make a lot of plays with his legs, and he has hinted that he doesn’t prefer to call plays that can wear such a valuable player down or constantly expose him to injury.
Right now, as a passer — and we’ve seen a bit of him at this point — Levis is a 50 percent completion guy who is getting about 6.4 yards per attempt. Do those numbers improve with consistent practice reps with the first team? They better.
James Franklin’s stance on sticking with his starting quarterback is admirable, and anyone who has ever played the quarterback position sure will appreciate it. The backup is always better, the job always easier from the outside. But, that stance may have cost Penn State the Nebraska game, because there should have been a switch made in the second half of the Maryland game. It was obvious then.
Going forward, I think there should be a much more liberal use of the quarterbacks on the roster. The leash should be a lot shorter for Levis than it ever was for Clifford. If Levis can’t get it going in the red zone, or the offense starts to stagnate again, give Ta’Quan Roberson a few looks. There’s no harm at this point. Your 0-4, and your real goal at this point should be developing talent.
At the very least, Penn State needs to go into 2021 knowing what it has to do at quarterback — even if that means crossing your fingers on a prospect like Christian Veilleux and letting it ride with him right out of high school. And the only way to do that is to treat that position over these next five games like it’s up for grabs. Which, will be a first for Franklin, and probably more than a little bit uncomfortable.
Speaking of comfort…
3.) There’s no question who the defense wants under center.
Probably a good time to bring up something I noticed on the sidelines during the Maryland game.
I won’t say who the defensive player was, 1.) because I don’t know exactly what the conversation entailed, and 2.) it’s not fair in that regard to drag a player into a quasi-controversy if there isn’t one, but I noticed in the fourth quarter of that debacle that one of the defensive starters pulled Levis aside on the sideline and gave him a very stern and serious pep talk.
Maybe Levis saw Clifford going back in, in a game in which he was struggling and Penn State had no chance to win, and said something in frustration that the defensive player quickly corrected. Maybe, the conversation was, “Respect the coaches’ decisions.”
But, my gut feeling was that it wasn’t that. It was more of a “Your time is coming. Be ready. Stay engaged.” look. Levis nodded his head. The defensive player patted him on the shoulder pad, and they watched the next offensive series together. (Clifford threw a pick.)
I tell you that to put these statistics from the Nebraska game in perspective:
- With Clifford in the game, Penn State’s defense allowed 150 total yards, two touchdowns and 17 points on three drives.
- With Levis in the game, Penn State’s defense allowed 168 total yards, no touchdowns and six points on eight drives.
Long-term, or even over the course of the next few weeks, I don’t know who Penn State’s quarterback is going to be. But I do have a strong suspicion the defense wants Levis under center, and has wanted him, for a few weeks now. That’s no knock on Clifford, at all. But I think they saw enough from him in practices to know that his attitude would give them some of that ever-undefinable “juice” that haven’t had all season.
Don’t believe me?
Here’s what Jayson Oweh said: “I love what he brings to the game. He’s a tough runner. He’s smart. He believes in himself. He gave us a spark when we needed it, because we knew that he was gonna give it all up on the offensive side, so we had to give it all out.”
Here’s what Jesse Luketa said: “His play did everything that we needed from an energy and juice standpoint. He was out there having fun. He was poised. He looked very comfortable and he did his job. Seeing him out there doing what I know he can do was exciting for me.”
Those comments are interesting. Those numbers are even more interesting. Maybe they’ll continue, and if they do, that brings up a whole lot of other questions. And maybe, they’ll even lead to some wins, even if…
4.) Winning isn’t all this fan base wants.
So, I got this email after the game. It’s from a reader I enjoy engaging with, someone who emails often. And, he does a good job making me think about things in ways I wouldn’t have before.
Whatever you think about the content of the email, OK…
But what I want to focus on is the subject of the email “This is where it all started!!!” and the photo that came attached to the email. Which was…
I’ve spoken to quite a few fans over the last few weeks who haven’t been able to let the Turnover Card go. It was a very early sign of something not quite right or the same with this team. Personally, I don’t disagree with them.
We see the turnover chains and the WWE championship belts all the time with other programs. I think the Wild Dogs deal was pretty cool last year, and they had the bone made for D-linemen who had a sack or a run stuff or whatever. That stuff is all in good fun, and most importantly, it’s not rubbing the other team’s face in a mistake. It’s celebrating what you did well, on your sideline.
I can do 5,000 words here — trust me, you don’t want me to — on why the turnover card was something completely different than that, and I have a feeling all of those reasons are why we haven’t seen the card since the opener. But we’ve seen the problem the card represents.
Did personal achievement get in the way of, or become more important than, winning at some point? There have been a lot of fingers pointed by veteran players this year toward nobody mentioned by name with accusations of not buying-in, not trusting the framework of the offense or defense, not being totally sold on what is going on. And I do think that, if Penn State had beaten Indiana and/or Nebraska, there are fans who would have the same concerns about this team as they do now.
CJ Thorpe’s 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty for taunting a player he had just pancake-blocked on a third-down play — which came just a few plays after Thorpe injured a prone Nebraska defensive lineman by diving into him, drawing harsh criticism from the FS1 announce team (former Ohio State running back Robert Smith called it “so dirty”) — was completely inexcusable, completely selfish. It put Jake Pinegar, who has been struggling badly this season, into a position where he had a 25-yard chip shot turned into a 40-yard field goal.
Franklin really defended the personal foul call on Brandon Smith earlier in the game, but I’m also sure he didn’t have as good a look at that as those watching on TV did. The whistle clearly blew, Smith finished off the tackle hard a few beats later anyway. That, to me, was a good flag. (There was a play later that Nebraska should have been called for the same thing and wasn’t, but that doesn’t change anything in regards to the Smith call.)
Smith, you can forgive. He’s a young guy trying hard to make something happen. What Thorpe did, I think, was embarrassing to Penn State fans who still kind of fancy themselves as the people who want to win and do it right all the same. Seen a lot of complaining about the post-play celebrations and the like this year. When you see a winless team acting that way, it doesn’t exactly alleviate concerns that there are cultural issues boiling below the surface within the program.
Tweet of the week
AP Top 25 Takeaways
Could a bizarre and disappointing season at Penn State, combined with a still underwhelming USC team make for the perfect time for the Trojans to hire James Franklin?https://t.co/KvDPetXsnj
— Ralph D. Russo (@ralphDrussoAP) November 15, 2020
I’ve seen a few comments on this one, and I guess it’s a fair take. Will Franklin see this as an opportune time to leave Happy Valley for the sunny west coast and another big-time program? I doubt it. But, maybe. I don’t know. There are a lot of crazy things going on.
Here’s what I do know: Penn State fans shouldn’t be rooting for this. Franklin is a good coach who has taken this program to different heights. It really has been a top-10-caliber program since Marcus Allen blocked that field goal in 2016, this season aside. I think Franklin — who yes, has had some issues as a game manager — doesn’t get enough credit for that.
That said, fans have to remember this is an athletic department that is now hemorrhaging money. They’re losing tens of millions of dollars this year, maybe more. They have good but not great facilities they may not be able to replace in the near future for financial reasons. And, I’m not sure the next head coach at Penn State is going to be someone athletics is going to be willing to pay like it is paying Franklin. So, the guess here is the next guy would be a more stab-in-the-dark and hope-for-the-best than established, dynamic sideline boss.
But again, I don’t think Franklin is going anywhere, and he’ll be a somewhat expensive buyout for other programs in the midst of financial struggles of their own.
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT