How worried should we be about this Penn State football team?
Everybody had College Football Playoff hopes this season, but let’s ask this now: What’s more likely?
** A 7-2 record, or …
** A 5-4 record
What are the main issues, and how did the Nittany Lions play so poorly in so many areas during Saturday’s controversial 36-35 OT loss at Indiana?
Let’s tackle all that in my 5 takeaways.
No. 1: Penn State was overrated
There were big questions about the wide receiver situation going into the game. The best linebacker in the country, Micah Parsons, had opted out for the NFL. One of the best running backs in the country, Journey Brown, could miss the season with a medical issue.
And yet, people just kept talking — hoping? — about how good this team is and could be.
Call it the next-man-up syndrome.
We hear so much in football about next man up. It’s probably the most common phrase in the sport, which makes sense because football is such a violent game that people are always going to get hurt and create openings for the next man up.
But here’s what gets lost in the whole next man up philosophy: Most of the time, the next man up isn’t as good as the guy he’s replacing.
If he were, he’d be the starter. Not the next man up.
Noah Cain is not as good as Journey Brown. (And now Cain is hurt, too. More on that later.)
No other linebacker is as good as Parsons, not even close.
None of these receivers are as good as KJ Hamler was last year.
It’s one thing to talk about the next guy needing to be ready, but a lot of times that guy just isn’t ready to produce at a similar level. And that leads to issues on the field.
Does anyone really think Penn State loses to Indiana if Parsons and Brown were both playing?
All the hope everyone had about this team, built up after last year’s Cotton Bowl, was indeed warranted. Penn State had a chance to be a top 10 team and College Football Playoff contender since it was bringing back a lot of pieces, including Parsons and Brown.
But expectations were never really tempered after Parsons opted out. And they weren’t tempered after the Brown news last week.
They should have been.
Instead of looking at PSU as an automatic top 10 team and CFP contender, perhaps we all should have been thinking differently.
Such as, thinking this team had a whole lot more to prove to earn that top 10 ranking and be justified getting mentioned as a CFP contender.
No. 2: There are concerns on offense
If Brown doesn’t return this season, there will be some issues.
If Cain can’t return for a while, then we could be looking at major problems.
The one position group no one was worried about because of its great depth could be without the top two guys on the depth chart for some time. Hopefully not, since we don’t know the extent of Cain’s ankle injury that ended his night in the first series.
Devyn Ford is a nice running back. He had 69 yards on 20 carries.
Freshman Keyvone Lee looked good with 35 yards on six carries, and fellow freshman Caziah Holmes had 16 yards on four carries.
Lee and Holmes, both four-star recruits, could wind up being terrific. But in the second game of their careers, they’re gonna have to play big roles going up against Ohio State.
As for the receivers, Jahan Dotson broke loose down the middle and was found by Sean Clifford for a huge 60-yard TD that gave Penn State a late lead, 21-20. Dotson was expected to be the best receiver to start this season, and he had four catches for 94 yards.
A lot is expected of freshman Parker Washington, and he had a huge catch with a sliding grab for aTD in overtime. He had two catches for 12 yards,
Daniel George had three catches for 29 yards and KeAndre Lambert-Smith had two for 25.
I didn’t see a standout receiver on the field for Penn State. Maybe Washington will be at some point in his career, but some point is not now. Not with Ohio State looming.
Tight end Pat Freiermuth is certainly fantastic, and he caught seven balls for 60 yards and a score.
Clifford was, quite frankly, amazing running the ball. The quarterback rushed for 119 yards on 17 carries and scored on a 35-yard run.
The problem, though, is that Clifford’s legs were perhaps the one thing keeping Penn State in the game most of the night.
And to expect for that to continue, now that teams are gonna be looking for it more often, is probably not wise.
Now, as for Clifford’s arm. He threw two terrible interceptions, and this team won’t win games against good teams if he keeps doing that.
Penn State had 488 yards in Kirk Ciarrocca’s debut as offensive coordinator. But the offense really struggled at times and got bailed out by Clifford’s legs and the one Indiana defensive breakdown on the long TD throw to Dotson.
I’d like to see Ciarrocca call for some more deep throws to spread out the field. But in order to do that, the wide receivers have to prove they can get open deep down the field, and I think it’s too early to assume they can do that.
No. 3: Defense doesn’t get off the hook
With so much talk about Clifford’s interceptions, penalties, fumbles and the controversial 2-point play, I haven’t seen a lot of people taking PSU’s defense to task.
In all fairness, the defense was terrific most of the night and got hurt early because Clifford’s interceptions put the group in tough spots and led to points.
Still, with the game on the line, Penn State’s defense wilted.
The Lions gave up a seven-play, 75-yard TD drive in the closing minutes. Then it allowed QB Michael Penix Jr. to tie the game on a 2-point conversion.
A few minutes later, after PSU scored a touchdown in overtime, the defense faltered once again. It allowed Penix to dictate things yet again, as he threw a TD pass to Whop Philyor, who beat safety Lamont Wade on the play.
It seemed pretty obvious that Indiana, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, would try and go for 2 to win the game.
The Hoosiers did.
And Penn State’s defense failed again.
OK, OK, maybe it didn’t really fail. My belief is that the ball went out of bounds before it touched the pylon when Penix reached out, and that PSU actually should have won the game.
But the officials ruled what they ruled. And Indiana won the game.
Penn State’s defense could not get the big stops when it had to, and that is very troubling because this team just can’t give away leads late in games.
No. 4: Tom Allen outcoached James Franklin
This one was obvious.
Allen has done a tremendous job at Indiana, which now has its highest ranking in 27 years after beating a top 10 team for the first time in 33 years.
It truly was a historic game for the Hoosiers and Allen.
And it was an embarrassing game for Franklin.
His teams usually play smart and with good discipline, but that wasn’t the case Saturday as the Lions made countless mistakes in all facets and committed 10 penalties for 100 yards. Despite all of that, Penn State still should have won. But Franklin and his staff absolutely blew it.
Taking over at the Indiana 14 with 1:47 left, the PSU coaches should have made it crystal clear beyond a shadow of a doubt to the players they should not try to score. In that situation, the only way Penn State was gonna lose would be if it did exactly what Indiana wanted it to do — which was to score a TD and give the ball back to the Hoosiers down eight.
The way things played out should become a coaches clinic on what NOT to do in that spot.
You can tell that Devyn Ford, as he approached the goal line with no Indiana defender around him, wasn’t sure what to do. He tried to slow down and stop himself from going into the end zone, but his momentum carried him forever.
It was not Ford’s fault that he scored.
It’s the fault of Franklin and the PSU coaches. They needed to have made sure the players understood the situation, and that clearly didn’t happen.
No. 5: Is 5-4 now a possibility?
Penn State is gonna lose this week to Ohio State. The Buckeyes are just too good on both sides of the ball, and without a whiteout and real home-field advantage, I can see Ohio State easily winning by double digits.
OK, so what about after that?
Michigan looked really good in thrashing Minnesota on the road Saturday, 49-24. I had already picked PSU to lose at Michigan later on, and if that happens, it would be loss No. 3.
Could there be a fourth loss this year? A lot of that will depend on the status of Brown and Cain at running back, and whether the Lions can find consistency at the wide receiver spot.
But yes, as of now, I can see Penn State dropping a fourth game somewhere along the line — either to Iowa at home or in the week nine game against a team from the Big Ten West.