Three weeks ago, Penn State had national championship hopes. It’s not that way anymore. Now…

1.) It feels like the state of the program might be at stake the rest of the season.

Look, I’m not a guy who really buys into these dramatic statements about teams being at crossroads, or times of reckoning. I’ve just seen too many times over the years where those moments aren’t quite as significant in hindsight as they seem in the moment. I thought Penn State’s program was going to be buried for obvious reasons in the summer of 2012, after all. They made the right choices a few times and came out of it fine.

The sanctions were a crossroads of a different kind, of course. That one was about a punishment. This one, a direction. Where is Penn State going? What is this coaching staff representing? What is important to these players? Why has pressing forward after a rough start to the 2020 season been such a monumental task, and what does that say about what is in place?

Penn State embarrassed itself against Maryland. Sure, Maryland is a much improved team than the one Penn State saw — and beat by 59 points — last season. But unless Taulia Tagovailoa and Rakim Jarrett are worth 75 points, the swing is hard to explain outside of what Penn State players admitted after the game: They aren’t playing together, they’re distracted, and they don’t have their heads where they need them to be. And, all of that is very obvious.

As I wrote this week in my postgame column, losing games is the least of Penn State’s worries right now. If they can’t get the attitude fixed, they look like a team that can go a calendar year without winning a game. I don’t know how you go from “our goal is the national championship” to that in matter of weeks. It’s astonishing, and it’s one thing I figured this coaching staff would be able to safeguard against by getting that one-game-at-a-time buy-in that James Franklin always pushes.

But if they aren’t getting that, what are they getting? It’s really what they coached best. They’ve been able to pack up disappointment and, ultimately, move on. That’s not always easy. But it has to be easier than it has looked this year.

And let’s face it, whatever is going on here is having (or potentially will have) a negative affect on everything around this program moving forward. This is not the time to lose the faith of your most ardent supporters, because in many cases they’re also your most ardent financial donors. And this program’s struggles to round out the 2021 recruiting class the way it wants to are well-documented. It should not be lost on anyone that, during the game, a Pittsburgh-area star defensive back, Derrick Davis, committed to LSU. That’s a player Penn State felt like it had been in good standing with for a long, long time. One visit to Baton Rouge, when Ed Orgeron and his staff weren’t even there, changed everything.

Bottom line is, Penn State is losing a lot of recruits it should be getting, just like it is losing too many games it should be winning. Losses can sometimes be explained away easy enough, but this one just can’t. And to be clear…

2.) It’s everyone’s fault.

A good college friend of mine is working on a new Penn State blog, called For The Blogy. Check it out: They published a really strong opinion piece after the game.

One of the thoughts written there:

“It’s time to finally point a finger at Dwight Galt and Penn State’s Strength and Conditioning crew and wonder whether they’re getting the job done. This group has been untouchable since guys like Saquon Barkley, Troy Apke and Mike Gesicki tore up the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, but when your offensive line and defensive line both get outmuscled by Maryland, it’s look-in-the-mirror season. Ohio State and its gaggle of 5-stars is one thing, but Maryland should never punk Penn State in the trenches.”

I don’t, by any stretch of the imagination, think Dwight Galt should be on the chopping block here. I don’t think anybody should. But this comment above does illustrate the point that nobody at Penn State should feel comfortable. An 0-3 start with losses to two teams who beat you a grand total of three times in decades upon decades worth of games is as bad as it gets.

Who is doing their job to expectation or better in this program right now? Honestly, I can think of just three men: receivers coach Taylor Stubblefied, and receivers Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington. Everyone else is either slightly below the line he has set as the bar (a guy like Pat Freiermuth), or far below it (the O-line, the D-line, Sean Clifford…and the list goes on).

But the trenches are where Penn State’s failures have been mystifying. How are they so bad there? They have five guys who’ve played a lot of football — and some of it has been really good football — over the years. To get bullied by Maryland…

Understand, Maryland had just one quarterback sack in their first two games against Northwestern and Minnesota. The Terrapins had seven — SEVEN! — against Penn State. Let’s look at it a more statistically advanced way:

  • They sacked the Wildcats and Gophers on about 2.2 percent of their dropbacks. They sacked Clifford on 10.9 percent.
  • They allowed 5.7 yards per rush on 103 carries in those first two games. They stuffed Penn State to the tune of 2.6 yards per rush. Take away the yardage lost on sacks, and it’s 5.2 yards per carry, but most of that is Clifford just taking off for what he could get when the protection broke down. Running backs gained 68 yards on 19 carries.
  • Penn State’s starting defensive line is simply not getting to the quarterback. The group had just one quarterback hurry (PJ Mustipher). All the sacks up front went to Shane Simmons (1.5) and Judge Culpepper (0.5).

Which begs another question…

3.) Why did Penn State waste the opportunity to give more playing time to some backups?

Everyone is focused on Clifford, and we’ll get to him in a second. But most of the questions after the game to Franklin centered on why he wasn’t benched in favor of backup Will Levis.

Sean Clifford looks downfield

Sean Clifford’s play has led to questions about his future as the starter. (AP Photo/Chris Knight, File)

Franklin’s response to that question, I thought, was interesting, given his responses to some other questions.

On sticking with Clifford…

“For me with starting quarterbacks, you want to do everything you possibly can to give him a chance to be successful and rally the team. The guy is in that position for a reason. In the second half, we still felt like we had an opportunity to go out and get this thing swung in another direction. At the time, we thought that was the right decision.”

On shuffling along the offensive line…

“Just trying to see if we can find the right five.”

I look at as, Clifford is struggling because the offensive line isn’t protecting him. And, I think that’s a fair assessment from Franklin (I tweeted that during the game, and got some blowback for it, but you have to be comfortable at the quarterback position and the offensive line isn’t making Clifford comfortable.)

But, I don’t agree that they had a chance to swing the game in the other direction. Once Chance Campbell returned the fumble at the beginning of the second half and it was 35-7, it was over. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought that in other years when it came to this series, but it was this time. Maryland was hitting on all cylinders, and Penn State couldn’t get anything tangible to go right. Maryland looked like the far more talented roster. Maryland was going to win.

The bottom line is, Penn State did get some backups into the game, just not enough. Caziah Holmes played more in the second half than Devyn Ford, but Keyvone Lee still has to get more reps. The linebackers were cycled through, and some different corners got in.

My issue with not playing Levis: There was an opportunity to get Clifford out of the game on a higher note, when the game was clearly out of reach. They were down 22 with 10:16 left after Clifford hit Washington for a 23-yard touchdown. They weren’t coming back, Clifford wasn’t going to make a better throw than that, and Levis was going to get a meaningful drive or two with the time remaining.

After that point, Clifford went 2 for 6 for 15 yards and two interceptions on his next two drives. He finished strong — 5 for 5, 59 yards and a 1-yard touchdown pass to Washington — on the final drive, but Maryland’s defense was giving Penn State a lot of cushion, because the game was over.

Those three drives were a good opportunity to get Levis some action against a defense not pinning its ears back to come get him. What does that prove? I don’t know. But I can’t see the coaches allowing Clifford to play the way he has much moving forward. Especially when you’re looking for the right combinations everywhere else. I expected a big step forward for him against Maryland, and really, it was his worst performance of the season, which leaves everyone wondering…

4.) Can Penn State redeem itself.

I’ll make this section short and sweet.

I’ll be really impressed with this group if it can finish 6-3. Maybe, more impressed than I would have been if they had just beaten Maryland like they always do and went on to finish 7-2.

Because at this point, finishing 6-3 is going to take more than just the talent Penn State thought would take it all the way this year. It’s going to take a lot of self-analysis. It’s going to take a desire for some players who really could consider packing it in for personal gain to demand something more for the sake of the program. It’s going to take mental toughness. It’s going to take humility.

Can they do it? I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s in this team’s DNA right now, but for the sake of the program, it better be. Because to me, it all comes back to that first point I wrote about above, the idea that something here isn’t right, that the whole program seems to be at a point where something has to give.

Tweet of the week

Now, I don’t know how old Jeff is, but this got me thinking…

I’ve been covering Penn State football full-time since the start of the 2004 season. I can’t think of a worse loss that I’ve covered. I mean, they’ve lost by more points. And, they’ve lost in more heartbreaking fashion. But to be a 20-something-point favorite to a team you’ve outscored by 150-plus points the last three seasons and to lose by 16? And never really be in the game?

I can’t think of any college football game I’ve ever covered that was like it.

Interested to hear what fans think. Was Toledo worse?