EDITORIAL: Penn State Football is 0-5 for the First Time in School History: Here’s Why
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Saturday’s 41-21 loss against the Iowa Hawkeyes made history for the Nittany Lions, but not the good kind of history that fans hoped this 2020 football team would make.
During preseason, this program had Big Ten title expectations, maybe even College Football Playoff aspirations, and now look at where they are. Sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten and off to the worst start in program history at 0-5.
When people reflect on this season for Penn State, what will they think of? You may deliberate some ideas of a very uncharacteristic team that starts slow, struggles tackling, loses the turnover battle and is completely different than what former Penn State teams have been in years past.
It’s a question that is asked because there are so many different answers as to why the Nittany Lions have been unsuccessful. So let’s talk about a few of those reasons previously mentioned.
Slow First Half Starts.
Penn State has trailed at the half in every game it has played this season. It’s easier said than done when playing Monday morning quarterback from home, yelling at the television screen upset and confused as to why Penn State doesn’t line up under center or why there’s continually thrown fade routes to smaller receivers, the list goes on and on.
A consistent theme over head coach James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State has been the poor starts, but teams in years past have bounced back and the coaching staff has been able to make adjustments at half time. However, this season, the point margin has been larger than in years past so even when adjustments are made and the comeback begins, it’s just not enough.
10, 15, 21, 21 and 17. Those are the deficits that Penn State has faced at the end of each half this year. When you’re in a position like that as a player and even as a coach, it’s hard to come back from and raise morale consistently from a mindset standpoint.
So, how do the Nittany Lions fix this issue? In my humble opinion, I think there needs to be more opportunity for big plays early on. I understand establishing the ground game is important for Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense, but at this point, why not take a couple of shots down the field on the first drive?
I realize that as an offense, you take what the defense gives you, but with nothing to lose at this point it’s at least an idea that should be thought about.
The play calling has been in question in recent weeks and along with that comes the “why can’t Penn State line up its quarterback under center to get one yard” crowd.
Totally understandable, and to be honest I don’t know why that facet or “wrinkle,” if you want to call it that, is not at least tried out as well.
Iowa demonstrated two perfect executions of it, which was fitting since Penn State had two different chances to do so but instead decided to continue with the RPO style offense and subsequently got shut down on both attempts.
Franklin has said that lining up under center is not in the playbook and that Penn State doesn’t do it. It’s become a joke between the fan base, media and pretty much everyone who is around Penn State football. But tonight showcased why Franklin and Ciarrocca should try it.
I’m not saying they should do it every play, but when you need one yard and you have a 6-foot-3, 220 plus pound quarterback, it begs the question, why not?
Whether Franklin remains the head coach at Penn State for two years or 10 years, this will always be talked about and brought up until something changes, and at this point, I don’t believe it will.
The Penn State defense has allowed 30 plus points in a school record six straight games dating back to last year’s Cotton Bowl against Memphis.
Matt Millen, a four year-letterman and defensive tackle for Penn State from 1976-1979, was on the broadcast for the Big Ten Network’s coverage of the game on Saturday.
Millen, who's watched Penn State since the 1960’s did not hold back describing his thoughts of why the defense has struggled.
“This is the worst tackling [by Penn State] that I think I’ve ever seen,” Millen said.
Brent Pry has been the defensive coordinator in Happy Valley since 2016. He is also the linebacker’s coach. There really is no explanation as to why the tackling, or lack thereof, has been different.
Highly touted linebackers Brandon Smith and Jesse Luketa both were seen missing tackles against Iowa. Being at “Linebacker U” puts pressure and expectations on both players and the room as a whole, and when a strong source of your defense struggles, the whole unit faces the same fate.
Smith loves to go for big hits, and with that passion comes a lot of “hit and misses” as the phrase is coined. While Luketa goes lower to wrap up, but is a little slow at times and the opposing players recognize it.
Another reason why the Penn State defense struggles is the inability for the defensive line to create havoc. What was once referred to as the “Wild Dogs”, a group named by former defensive line coach Sean Spencer, is now a very different bunch.
The decrease in pressure allows for more time, running room and passing options to open up downfield. Remember what I said earlier about one group’s struggle affecting the defense as whole? This applies here as well.
Losing The Turnover Battle.
“The story of the game is you can’t turn the ball over,” James Franklin said during his press conference Saturday night. “That’s the story of the season.”
Turnovers, along with the explosive play battle, is a constant point of emphasis that Franklin has mentioned all year long, and Penn State continues to lose the former as it has done so in every game this season.
Saying that Nittany Lions need to turn the ball over less on offense and get more takeaways on defense is obvious and an understatement.
How they do that on the defensive side is to be more aggressive on all levels, from the secondary all the way down to the trenches. If you’re Brent Pry, dialing up more pressure like he did today could possibly prove to be successful.
Getting defensive ends Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh going is integral to the success and motor of the defense.
In the secondary, it may be time to switch up the coverages a little. Playing more press and bump and run coverage could allow for young players like Joey Porter Jr. and Keaton Ellis the chance to make a play on the ball.
Safety Jaquan Brisker dropped a sure interception that was thrown right to him in the second quarter against Iowa. It was a rare gift for the Penn State defense, however Brisker took his eyes off the ball and failed to make a momentum shifting play. It’s plays like that which are imperative for the Nittany Lions to make a play on the ball.
Something To Note:
Penn State lost two more players due to injury on Saturday. Running back Devyn Ford left the game with an undisclosed injury, and Pat Freiermuth did not dress and it was confirmed by Franklin that he would have season ending surgery due to an injury sustained against Ohio State three weeks back.
To update the list, Penn State has lost these players so far this season: Micah Parsons (opted out), Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Freiermuth, Tariq Castro-Fields, Ford, Des Holmes and Cam Sullivan-Brown.
Every team deals with injuries. I’m not saying Penn State would be a winning football team with all of these players healthy and on the field. However, I am saying that the mentality on both sides of the ball changes, and whether that would’ve led to success in the win column is something we will never know.
Overall, there are a lot of problems with this 2020 Penn State football team, and there’s a lot more that will be talked about and analyzed as to why they’ve played for lack of a better word, poorly this season.
There is a standard that has been set at Penn State, it’s been like that for generations. There’s no excuse for the record, play and the coaching.
There’s no excuse to be 0-5, and the only winless team in the Big Ten.
Andrew Field is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.