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When Penn State Football is 0-4, You Are What Your Record Says You Are

by on November 15, 2020 6:15 PM

Penn State is 0-4.

It is the only team in the Big Ten without a win.

Kirk Herbstreit, who was in The Big House on Saturday night for the public de-pantsing of Michigan by Wisconsin, said this during the telecast about the Nittany Lions' current spot in the league outhouse:

"What's happening with Penn State right now is shocking."

A bit stunning, as well, is that over the past nine games, Penn State is 3-6.

And it could get worse.

If Penn State loses to Iowa on Saturday in Beaver Stadium (3:30 p.m. kickoff, BTN), its record will fall to 0-5. This is Penn State's 134th season of playing football and it has never been 0-5.

That fifth consecutive loss is possible:

After a turbulent offseason that saw the dismissal of their longtime strength coach and had head coach Kirk Ferentz come under some serious fire, the Hawkeyes are riding a two-game winning  streak. They thoroughly pounded Michigan State and Minnesota (on the road Friday night) by a cumulative score of 84-14, after narrow opening losses of 24-20 to Purdue and 21-20 to Northwestern — very solid squads themselves that are a collective 6-1.

Iowa always plays Penn State tough. And vice versa. Penn State has won their past six meetings, though the last three have been decided by a total of 13 points (21-19, 30-24, 17-12).

And to think that this season held such promise.

To wit: Later during the Michigan-Wisconsin debacle on Saturday night, as Herbstreit spoke, running on the crawl across the bottom of the screen was this Fool's Gold nugget: Penn State is the 1st team in the preseason Top 10 to go 0-4 since Pitt in 1984.

ONE WINLESS SEASON

Penn State football has had a winless season before, but never as the Nittany Lions (that nickname began in 1904): In its second year of football, in 1888, Pennsylvania State College did go winless — tying Dickinson 6-6 at home, then losing to Dickinson 16-0 on the road before losing 30-0 to Lehigh in the season finale for a record of 0-2-1.

The Nittany Lions have also lost more games in a single season — nine in 2003, eight in 1931, seven in 2000 and 2004, six in nine seasons and five in 10 seasons.

They've lost four in a row twice under James Franklin — in both 2014 and 2015. Now, add 2020 to the list.

It looks like these Nittany Lions are in a tailspin. Penn State is 2-6 in its last eight Big Ten Conference games. (There's also a non-conference win in there over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.) When the Nittany Lions take the field against Iowa on Saturday, they will have just one conference win in the previous 369 days.

Their two most recent opponents, Maryland and Nebraska, are hardly world-beaters. In the past three seasons (2017-2019), Maryland won 12 games and Nebraska won 13. Penn State won 11 in 2019 alone. Certainly, Penn State has more talent than either team, even without Micah Parsons, Journey Brown and Noah Cain.

So, how did it get this bad?

There's the pandemic, of course. But 13 other Big Ten teams have managed at least one victory since the conference-game-only season started late, on October 23. Six of those teams — Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Rutgers, Illinois, and, now, Nebraska — have a solitary victory.

In these challenging times, a win is a win is a win.

THE REASONS

At 0-4, the state of Penn State football is — as Bill Parcells once famously said — "You are what your record says you are."

The reasons are myriad: No Micah, Journey or Noah. Stricter protocols at PSU than elsewhere. That damn pylon in Bloomington. James misses his family. (Who doesn't? I do: One of my sons is in Minneapolis, where protestors marched outside his door; his twin brother lives in a studio apartment in NYC, where the virus has been marching as well. My 84-year-old mother is quarantined — again — inside her apartment 100 miles away. I've not seen my sons since February and my mother, except through a window, in that time as well.)

Franklin has new assistants — four of them, including a new offensive coordinator who had to install an offense on Zoom. He's not alone. Gallup says 62% of Americans have worked remotely during the pandemic.

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Granted, it's tough. But, four games in, the coordination is still not there. That was never clearer than in the final 7 minutes and 39 seconds of Penn State's game at Nebraska. The Nittany Lion offense had two cracks to close a 30-23 gap after admirably rallying after a(nother) horrendous first half. Penn State's offense got into the red zone twice. And it failed. Twice.

Since Kirk Ciarrocca, Penn State's fourth O-coordinator in seven seasons, makes over $1 million and Franklin over $6 million, I'd prefer to blame the plays that were called rather than the players not executing them.

To be honest, however: Yes, quarterback Will Levis provided a big spark on Saturday. But, when it mattered most, he fizzled. Not to be harsh, but: Levis is in his third season as a scholarship quarterback at Penn State. He came to PSU to make big plays in the final seconds of must-win games. On Saturday, he did not.

For all the good Levis did after he relieved Sean Clifford, Ciarrocca couldn't figure out how to get him and the football and Penn State into the end zone when it mattered the most on Saturday.

Twice...

In the game's final six minutes, over two separate drives, Penn State had 11 plays inside the Nebraska 20-yard line — the red zone. And it came away with nothing. PSU had:

Runs of 3 and 4 yards.

A sack that lost 4 yards.

A complete pass for 11 yards.

And 7 incompletions.

In this case, 0 for 11 equaled 0 and 4.

You can put it on Levis. Or Ciarrocca. Or, more accurately, you can put it on Franklin, a former offensive coordinator at Maryland and Kansas State.

Whether the coordinator of the day is named John, Joe, Ricky or Kirk, it is James who gets the big bucks to step in and make the right call. Curiously, when the Penn State offense huddled along the sidelines near game's end, Franklin stood outside the circle. Delegation and trust are good, but making the final decision comes with the territory.

CHAOS: BOTH LESS AND MORE OF IT

While Levis provided a momentary spark, the one who really brought the fire in the Penn State locker room over the previous six seasons is gone. To the New York Giants.

Sean Spencer brought his own brand of chaos and positive energy to not only Penn State's defensive line, but to the entire team. Day after day, game after game. That is why Franklin abdicated the pre-game pep talk to Spencer.

Defensive end Jayson Oweh knows that all too well, having played two years under Spencer before the assistant coach left for the NFL and was replaced by John Scott Jr. in February, about a month before Penn State's players scattered when classes went remote and spring practice was called off.

(Scott has been at PSU for 281 days. By contrast, Clifford committed to Penn State 1,950 days ago, on July 13, 2015. Gives some needed context to Franklin's loyalty about sticking with Cliff.)

"In terms of replacing Spence with that intensity," Oweh said on Saturday, "you know no one can replace that. He brings a different type of juice. So now it's like a collective, y'all have to get the juice up ourselves."

BYOJ — bring your own juice? In the middle of pandemic? Yikes!

Ain't no juice there — let alone chaos.

Penn State has been outscored in the first 30 minutes of its games in 2020 by a 93-26 margin. And Ohio State, Maryland and Nebraska each started their games against Penn State with 75-yard touchdown drives, each under four minutes long. That's a lack of leadership, motivation and/or preparation.

A PAT ANSWER

Penn State is a young team, thinking it knows what it takes to win.

But it does not.

Eighty-one of the players on the roster are true sophomores or younger. Included in that figure are 31 true freshmen who have never won a football game in Happy Valley.

Tight end Pat Freiermuth, a wise old head at age 22 and a New England straight-shooter who leads by both word and deed, got on Zoom after the loss at Nebraska to answer questions. I asked him about all that youth and any attendant immaturity.

The two-part reply by Freiermuth, who had a career-high 113 receiving yards on seven catches against the Cornhuskers, his 29th consecutive game with a reception, was telling:

"We can't let that be an excuse," said Freiermuth, a team captain the past two seasons. "I mean those guys came here for a reason. I came here to win football games and they came here to play in big-time moments. You can't use the whole 'We're young' excuse, because at the end of the day no one cares. The only thing people care about is wins and losses right now.

"Obviously we haven't had any wins, but we can't use the youth movement — or youth, whatever it is — as an excuse. Kids have to grow up. It's the little things off the field that are frustrating, which kind of goes on."

Me: "What do you mean by 'little things off the field?’ ”

Freiermuth: "Stuff that we've never done. Showing up late stuff. Just not doing things that Coach Franklin has preached to us to be successful, not only in football but in life. We just have to hold each other accountable."

Franklin and only a fairly small portion of his current coaching staff know firsthand of the true foundation of a winning culture they so painstakingly established at Penn State after suffering through those 2 x 4-consecutive game losing streaks in 2014 and '15. Brent Pry, Terry Smith, Tim Banks and Dwight Galt are the only ones now on the staff who were there for the totality of the 37-7 streak that was Penn State football from October 1, 2016 to October 26, 2019.

But they are a small group. The others may have read or heard of Penn State's success or seen Whiteouts on TV, but they have not lived it. Or, TBH, contributed to it in full measure. But they appropriated it and have sold it, complete with swagger. Which reminds me of a Tweet from the recruiting trail, by Ja'Juan Seider and former (one-year) assistant Gerad Parker in Florida, of the two of them next to a souped-up rental car.

That 37-7 streak and the accompanying three appearances in NY6 bowls were so fulfilling they got Franklin a contract so rich and so iron-clad, that at season's end it will be worth a guaranteed $32.5 million if he goes 0-9 and is somehow dismissed by the firm of Barron & Barbour. (Which would be a huge mistake, BTW.)

The Nittany Lions were 16-14 before that 37-7 run and are now the aforementioned 3-6 afterwards.

Gone are the wise veterans of those runs who held others accountable, from DaeSean Hamilton and BBell to Grant Haley, Nick Scott, Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley. I can say this with certainty, from personal experience: Solid, smart, really good young men all, beyond the football field. Like Pat Freiermuth.

NOW...

It is a new era of Penn State Football.

Some folks saw it coming. Franklin included. The extracurriculars after a play, like wildly celebrating a tackle when down by double-digit points, have been on the rise the past few years, a sign of immaturity and lack of discipline. And, BTW, no one could cut the grass better than Barkley — and he didn't need a nickname.

"All the little extra stuff after every single play," Franklin said on Saturday. "That’s got to get corrected. We've been talking about it for three years."

Players change and so do standards. That's what Freiermuth was talking about in Lincoln, before he boarded a bus to the Lincoln airport to take a silent flight home to what is a decidedly Unhappy Valley. Same goes for the usually silent and always steady Jahan Dotson last week, when he called out his teammates for succumbing to distractions.

And so was Zach Smith, the former Ohio State assistant who has fallen from grace. You may want to take what he said on the November 14 episode of "The Pilot Boys Podcast" with a grain of salt. But here goes:

"When we would lose a recruit to Penn State," said Smith, who coached at Ohio State from 2012-18 before being fired by Urban Meyer and subsequently found guilty of violating a protection order, "it was because, 'Penn State is fun and they're cool and they're hip and the coaches are really cool.' And it was like, 'OK, at Ohio State we're not cool at all. We just coach you hard and develop you...Every now and then you have to be an asshole. They've had success. But in my opinion, that's why they can't get over the hump."

Despite your misgivings about Smith, there may be a grain of truth there as well.

It may have been cool being a Penn State football player coming in.

But, these days, this is also true: It's time to kick a few butts.

Because if you are what your record says you are, then being oh-and-4 isn't cool. Even in a pandemic.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. 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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