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Rock bottom: Lions face crucial point in program for this season and for years to come

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Pat Freiermuth looks for running room Saturday against Maryland.

This is what rock bottom feels like for the Penn State football team.

A stunning, embarrassing 35-19 loss to Maryland, which came into Beaver Stadium as a 27.5-point underdog.

It’s obvious we saw a Nittany Lion team that wasn’t prepared to play.

Much, much worse, we saw a team that didn’t even look all that interested in playing.

Then afterward, we heard some bombshell statements that we’re just not accustomed to with this Lions program, courtesy of wide receiver Jahan Dotson.

Trust. Buy in. Individuals.

You hear those words from Dotson, and it’s impossible to come to any other conclusion: This Penn State football team — and the entire program, really — is in trouble.

And where things go from here in the coming days and weeks will shape the PSU program for years to come.

One specific word Dotson did not say was this — selfish.

But it’s clear that’s what he was talking about.

“Right now we have a lot of individuals, a lot of guys just thinking about things they shouldn’t be thinking about right now,” Dotson said.

Who are those guys? What are they thinking about? And why?

“Monday’s days off, we’ve got to see every guy in the building. Literally. From top of the roster to the bottom, we’ve got to see every guy in the building just doing something to get better,” Dotson said.

Does that mean some guys haven’t been showing up in the building trying to improve?

Who are those guys?

“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,” Dotson said.

Who is he talking about? What guys are giving off indications they don’t want it, or don’t want to be there?

“We’ve got to have everyone 100 percent bought in,” Dotson said.

Who is not 100 percent bought in?

“We’re not as one right now. We’re not a unit right now. There’s a lot of different things going on. There’s distractions, basically,” Dotson said.

What are those distractions? Are they noticeable to everyone, even the coaches?

“We’ve just got to trust each other,” Dotson said of the offense. “We kind of have some guys just doing their own things sometimes, and we’ve just got to come together and work as a unit.”

Who doesn’t trust whom? And why? Did something happen for people to lose trust in one another?

After last week’s loss to Ohio State, QB Sean Clifford was fired up when he said this: “If you’re not motivated after two losses when your back is against the wall, I don’t want you here. I’m not gonna go like that. … That’s not how I operate, that’s not how the people around me operate.”

OK, but what if it really is how some of the people around Clifford operate? What if some of the players are selfish, only are thinking about their playing time or stats and are not fully bought in with the team now 0-3?

These are huge questions and major problems that James Franklin and the coaching staff have to figure out and figure out in a hurry to prevent this season from going off the rails.

Now, you can say it already has gone off the rails when a preseason top 10 team loses to a four-touchdown underdog and looks awful and disinterested in the process.

But hey, things still could get worse, believe it or not.

The Lions are favored by 3 ½ points this week at Nebraska, but anyone looking at that game realistically could totally see the Huskers winning it.

Then the Lions have Iowa at home and a trip to Michigan. Those absolutely are winnable games for any decent Penn State team.

But they are loseable games, too, for a team that has major problems on offense and defense.

An 0-6 start, as ridiculous as that sounds, is not out of the realm of possibility if these Lions can’t figure out what’s going on and fix all of it in a hurry.

Look, the kinds of statements that Dotson and Clifford made are not uncommon in sports. If you watch enough bad teams around the country in various sports, you’ll hear guys say similar things about teammates.

But you almost never hear anything like that out of the Penn State football program.

There have been shortcomings with PSU teams over the years, but rarely has selfishness or lack of team focus ever been considered a major cause. One exception was the 1999 team, which fell apart at the end, with the feeling being that some of the defensive stars were already looking ahead to their NFL careers.

Speaking of that, would anyone blame tight end Pat Freiermuth or defensive end Jayson Oweh for giving long, hard thought to calling it a season to start preparing for the NFL draft? The Lions are 0-3, the team’s biggest goals are gone, and both of those guys are projected to be first-round picks.

There also are a ton of young, talented players in the program who have a chance to help make Penn State very good in the coming years. But what are all of these players thinking about the mess this season has become, and do we know that they are all bought in to the degree that they need to be?

We are fast approaching a type of free agency in college sports. Starting next year, college football and basketball players will for the first time have the opportunity for a one-time transfer situation, allowing them to become immediately eligible at any other Division I school. When that happens, it will open up a Pandora’s box of mass numbers of players entering the transfer portal for any number of reasons, including feeling like they aren’t getting to play as much as they had hoped.

There’s also the current recruiting predicament Penn State finds itself in. This is a down recruiting cycle for the program, and even one bad year recruiting when you play in the Big Ten East and have to deal with Ohio State every year can be a major obstacle to achieving the kind of national success Penn State hopes to achieve. A great season might have been a springboard for recruiting, but starting 0-3 and having talk of internal issues certainly could be big turnoffs for potential recruits.

Look, 2020 is a screwed up year. This year absolutely sucks in so many ways, and it’s a year we will never, ever forget in this country.

It should come as no surprise — after dealing with so much uncertainty about even getting to play or not, then having Micah Parsons opt out, then losing Journey Brown and Noah Cain — that some Penn State players might have a lot of other things on their minds that prevent them from being totally bought in to playing football.

They’re only human. And when life is dealing you a bunch of crap, it’s hard to maintain full focus and motivation for anything.

Regardless, we’ve always come to expect a full commitment to the team and program from Penn State players, and a total buy in from those guys to show up each and every week ready to give their best effort.

We didn’t see anything close to that Saturday, and the result was the most embarrassing performance we’ve seen from the Lions in a long, long time.

Now it’s up to Franklin and his coaches to correct these major issues and prevent one bad game from turning into one dreadful season that could hinder the program for years.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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