There was no greater feeling than getting your license on your 16th birthday. The open road was there for the taking. The freedom that you would now have as a teenager, vaulting you into early adulthood.
You would climb into the driver seat for the first time and hit the gas, smoothly, coolly pulling out of the garage before your worst nightmare came true – the dreaded clutch-brake-gas combo at a traffic light.
Like a 16-year-old learning how to drive a stick shift for the first time, the momentum that Penn State has surprisingly built stalled out at a yellow (or maize) light that could throw this whole trip in a nervous tailspin.
And that anxiety coursing through the bones of the 16-year-old, desperately trying to turn the car back on, is the same anxiety coursing through the bones of Penn State fans on Monday morning.
You’ve been here before. You know what it feels like and yet there’s absolutely nothing you can do as an onlooker.
Saturday’s 41-17 loss to Michigan was one of James Franklin’s worst. For a team beaming with hope and promise like a teen smiling for that driver’s license photo, the stall out has left Penn State fans panicking once again.
“Is James Franklin the right man for the job? Clifford or Allar? Diaz is overhyped?”
Questions all coursing through Penn State fans’ heads this week as the car desperately tries to turn on again and again.
There’s not one real answer for any of those questions right now. Saturday’s loss was so frustratingly frustrating that there’s not a single finger to put the blame on but rather an awkward coordination of parts that were working fine at the beginning, much like my 1996 Subaru Legacy did back in 2011.
This was a season built on building depth if you follow what Franklin said. This was a season built on helping the quarterback train The Quarterback.
But yet after a miracle drive in West Lafayette and a steam-rolling of an SEC team, there was hope and promise heading into that Michigan game. That maybe Penn State wouldn’t look like the team it did as Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards made roadkill of the Nittany Lions’ defense.
That an offense that has been largely effective would go missing like the keys your parents hid from you when they didn’t want you sneaking out.
Like that 16-year-old at the light, Penn State’s season just hit an invisible wall.
So how can this season be restarted before the people behind Franklin and co. start honking and hollering even more than they already have?
It’s up to the driver to figure that one out. He has to be the one who figures it out. With that contract and the promise of the 2022 recruiting class, there’s too much riding on Franklin to not get this thing going again.
It might not be time to move on from Clifford but it’s certainly time to give Allar the keys if Clifford is struggling with injury – even if it’s a quick one-game trip.
It might be time to reassess whether Penn State can still pull the Linebacker U. trailer after a promising defense looked like a traffic cone misplaced in the middle of a highway.
But it’s up to Franklin to pull this thing back together and get it going again. Fast.
Learning how to drive a stick is tricky because you can keep stalling out repeatedly even though you swear that you’re doing the right thing.
And for the last few seasons, Franklin and co. have sworn they’re doing the right thing by the 1-0 approach they’ve had. But losses go from one to two to three quickly around these parts. First, you think it’s just a spark plug and then it’s this, that and the other and you’re looking at a costly fix.
Penn State has its two largest tests ahead of them left over the course of the next two weeks. Franklin’s staff can correct this season with a Whiteout win and an upset over Ohio State. Those are two tests for Franklin to finally get this car started again in a year where it seemed like he was driving a Ferrari.
But if not, then it’s time to take this car into the shop and run a deeper diagnostic test to see what’s wrong with it.
Darian Somers is a 2016 Penn State graduate currently living in Frederick, Maryland. You can follow him on Twitter at @StuffSomersSays. You can listen to his podcast, Stuff Somers Says with Steve Sampsell every week on major podcast outlets.