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Penn State Football: Why Losing in 2010 Is Different

by on October 15, 2010 7:00 AM

Intuitively, Penn State fans know that a 3-3 record is not, on the surface, all that different from the 4-2 they expected back in August.

In fact, a Penn State player intimated after the Illinois game that he thought the Nittany Lions would be 4-2 at this juncture, too.

So, a difference of one win. Is it that big of a deal?

Well, yes, if you check out the message boards. Listen to the talk shows. Read the web and newspapers. Watch the games. It is that big of a deal.

It’s not the 3-3 record that has many fans and media types in an uproar. It’s how the Nittany Lions got there.

Penn State’s road to .500 is a wretched highway of sorts. Nineteen points in three losses. Red zone woes. A blue Royster (no longer a cult). More field goals than touchdowns. More injured than not on the defense’s two-deep. Humiliation on national TV against old friend Alabama. Yet another loss to Iowa. And then, a 20-point pounding by Illinois.

Not pretty. Hide the women and children.

It’s all a far cry from 2005, when Penn State hammered the Illini 63-10. Last Saturday represented a point differential swing of 73 points. Yeesh.

2005: THE TURNING POINT

Ah, 2005. That’s when Penn State emerged from the Dark Years. From 2000 to 2004, the Lions had a 26-33 record. From 2005 to 2009, they had practically twice as many wins, at 51-13.

Certainly six games -- albeit three of them atrocious losses to Alabama, Iowa and Illinois –- can’t erase a terrific half-decade of Penn State football. Can they?

They were five years that produced a share of two Big Ten titles, an Orange Bowl victory, the second-best record in the Big Ten (29-11, surpassed only by Ohio State’s extraordinary 36-4), two victories over the Buckeyes, back-to-back Top 10 finishes, 24 NFL draft choices (four No. 1’s), 17 All-American selections (eight first-team), the Big Ten’s MVP and a two-time first-team All-Big Ten quarterback.

But now, that’s gone. All gone. Thanks to the first six games of 2010.

Pretty quickly, in Happy Valley it’s 2000 all over again. And 2001. And 2003. And 2004.

Joe Paterno himself has acknowledged his team this season is bad. If he says “we stunk,” who are we to disagree?

But the feeling of it all is different.

It has gone from a Nittany Nation celebrating a 22-4 run –- OK, two losses to Iowa and a boxing by Southern Cal looked bad –- and back-to-back No. 8’s in the final polls, to a Nasty Nation calling for Joe’s head, Jay and Galen’s play-calling chart, the O-line coaches' jobs and Evan Royster’s manhood.

How has that happened so quickly?

Earlier this decade, it took Michael Wilbon, Bill Lyon, Bill Conlin and Jon Saraceno five years of this stuff to say that Joe must call it a day. This time around, it took Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette all of five weeks.

What’s different? Why is it taking only a half-dozen games, half of them wins, for the criticism of Paterno and Penn State to reach a fever pitch that took years to build despite four out of five losing seasons?

WHY THINGS HAVE CHANGED

Here’s why, in 2010, things have changed:

1.) JoePa is 83, almost 84.

A decade ago, he was 73 going on 63, still the picture of health. Over the past five years he’s broken his leg, had a hip replaced and went through a terrible bout of intestinal problems. He’s coached from the press box. Several times. The end of his career is in sight, in a way that was not the case five, six years ago.

At times, he appears not up the task, so he’s a natural – easy – target in a way he wasn’t a decade ago.

2.) There’s no feel-good aura about this team around which fans can rally.

Royster’s march to the all-time rushing record has been fraught with controversy. He’s not a fan favorite and he has just one game over 56 yards rushing (187 vs. Temple) this season. Whether it’s his fault or that of the O-line doesn’t matter. His run to greatness has slowed to a walk.

Paterno is just three wins away from 400 victories all-time. It could be an exciting chase, but it is lacking the hoopla of the drive to 324 wins, which was back in 2001 (even though he lost 14 of the 21 games leading up to the record-setting game, there was some excitement).

The 400 mark has lost its luster with three bad losses, and now folks are making jokes about when he’ll break the record – the 2011 Blue-White game is just one making the rounds – rather than seeing it as a crowning achievement.

3.) No stars. There is no player for fans to hang their hat on.

Name one star on this team. No MRob or Clark. No Bowman, Lee, Posluszny or Connor. No Williams, King, Norwood or Butler. Offensive linemen A.Q. Shipley and Levi Brown garnered admiration, not consternation.

The captains are basically unknown – even though Ollie Ogbu is a third-year starter – and undecorated.

4.) Paterno is less visible. And therefore easier to criticize.

He once was a man who was the face and voice and presence of the program. He engendered goodwill, he was accessible to the fans. He not only could head off criticism, he could turn it around.

No more.

He tapes a few questions for the Thursday night radio show, he is scheduled for two State College Quarterback Club appearances this fall, he missed an entire slate of booster functions over the summer. He comprises less than 6 percent of the weekly Penn State football highlight show (most of it from his press conferences), in stark contrast 25 years ago when he was on air for more than 40 percent of “TV Quarterbacks.”

To his credit, he has not short-changed the media. He does his weekly Tuesday press conference for local media, then does a short stint on a Big Ten conference call. The night before road games he still confabs with traveling media, a wonderful gesture and PR move, no matter what his age.

And he still does his post-game press conference – although it is getting shorter and shorter. But what major college football coach doesn’t do all that, and more? Joe used to do more, much more.

5.) It costs more to see Penn State play football.

The STEP program, the new seat licensing program for Beaver Stadium, is in many ways necessary to bring Penn State up to the level of its Big Ten and national power brethren. But it has still ruffled thousands of feathers.

Many fans are already upset over the new charges, and a wavering team – an underperforming product – is tipping some over the edge. And doing so at a rate that would not have happened six, eight, 10 years ago, losses or not.

The overall cost to attend a game in Happy Valley has skyrocketed, what with hotel rooms, gas, dining, etc. It's a true investment that people expect will reap dividends in the win column.

6.) No offense.

Nineteen points in three games is a very poor performance that is nearly unmatched in Penn State history even from 2000-2004. In 2000, the Lions had 12 points in consecutive losses to Toledo, Pitt and Ohio State (sandwiched around a win over Louisiana Tech.)

The Lions scored a total of 21 in losses to Iowa, Ohio State and Northwestern in 2004. You know which Iowa game that was, right? The 6-4 debacle. Penn State’s all-time low of six first downs against Iowa that day is only slightly worse than the seven they had against Illinois last week. That’s slumming it.

The Nittany Lions have scored six touchdowns in 20 trips to the red zone at a time when red zone stats are all the vogue; the average fan did not pay attention to such numbers a decade ago. Futile is easier to discover and understand.

Fans love offense and scoring, much more than defense. And with no offensive excitement, folks are even more apt to be disgruntled. I doubt we’d hear the same sort of grumbling if the Lions lost 42-31 to Illinois.

7.) No appreciation for the D.

Until Penn State defense was hit by an injury tsunami that struck the Beaver Stadium shores last Saturday, the Nittany Lions were not characteristically great, but they were good.

Despite facing top-shelf teams in Alabama and Iowa, Penn State ranked nationally in several defensive categories prior to the Illinois game. They were 25th in pass defense, 18th in total defense and 15th in scoring defense. Not the Top 5 average of the past five years, but strong nevertheless.

But, since a lot fewer people appreciate the D than the O (see No. 6), it’s easier to think the worst rather than the above average. And the lack of an easy-to-spot linebacking star (Michael Mauti may be the guy, if he stays healthy) and a dominating D-lineman like Hali or Maybin or Odrick, the defense does not have the panache that rallies and excites fans.

8.) The fans are not fanatic.

The students get to home games late. Very late. They need to get their asses out of bed and into the stadium if they really want to be Kirk Herbstreit’s “best student section in the nation” or ESPN’s “nation’s No. 1 student section.”

They are getting complacent and are underperforming as much as the team.

The “regular” fans are performing better than the kids, but Beaver Stadium has had no electricity, whether it’s Barbie State or Illinois.

Time to jumpstart them all.

Penn State’s marketing department should recant its decision to not make the Michigan game an all-stadium whiteout. Turn it all white, motivate the fans and hence the players, crank up the volume, make a difference. Make it fun.

9.) Great expectations.

Penn State is a victim of its own success. It went from a .440 winning percentage from 2000-2004 to a .796 mark from 2005-2009. Nearly double.

That’s the new standard – which is actually the old standard. The Nittany Lions have almost had as many losses in a half-season of 2010 that they had in two whole years of 2008-2009.

People expect success in the win column and are afraid things will go back to how they were earlier in the decade. That fear is palpable.

10.) Fewer recruits.

Whether the Nitany Lions have only a few scholarships to give or where you end up in February is more important than where you stand now, it’s a horrible perception problem that may be true.

The future is at stake and now, with Paterno and the recruits. So any chink in the armor is magnified. And the level of concern is increasing.

That Paterno has hit the trail only since seeing Terrelle Pryor in early 2008 only adds to the level of anxiety and the sense of urgency that Penn State fans feel.

11.) The losses were to Iowa and Illinois, and they were so bad.

The Nittany Lions have now lost to the Hawkeyes in nine of their last 11 meetings. The 2008 and 2009 losses were the first defeats of each season and both times dimmed any PSU hopes of a national title. Another loss came in overtime and another in double OT. Then there was the 6-4 defeat when Kirk Ferentz dared Penn State to score.

It’s a galling set of circumstances that made the 2010 loss at Iowa even more heartbreaking.

Then there’s the loss to Illinois.

The Illini coach, Ron Zook, is hardly considered a coaching genius. His team was coming off of two horrible seasons. Penn State had lost only twice to Illinois since joining the Big Ten. And in 2009, the Lions manhandled Illinois 35-17 on their homefield.

Losing to Iowa was bad but expected, but Illinois was embarrassing, especially how it happened and by that 33-13 score, which actually could have been worse if not for Frank Ramsey’s lack of point return prowess.

Penn State has looked bad losing, too. The confusion on the sidelines has not inspired confidence and has only exacerbated the losses.

12.) An instant gratification society.

We as a society want it now, even moreso than a decade ago. And when we don’t get it, we moan and groan and hit the resend button.

Penn State is 3-3 -- with many problems -- and many Nittany Lion fans want the screen to refresh and everything to be OK.

Now.

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Related Coverage

Penn State Football: Powell Returns to Defense -- Again (Oct. 14, 2010)

Penn State Football: Paterno's Nittany Lions Need Leaders (Oct. 12, 2010)




Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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