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Penn State Football: New Problems Mount As Nittany Lions Tackle Old Ones

by on October 12, 2014 2:00 PM

Penn State might still be paying the price for those NCAA sanctions, and that might be the biggest hurdle the Nittany Lions have to overcome, but it doesn't mean there is a blank check lying out on the field to excuse every mistake.

Sanctions may be the reason the offensive line is so thin, but that's not why timeouts are wasted, punts are shanked and leadership is questioned.

And in a close contest where your opponent hasn't won in three games and hasn't exactly been a display of coherent football itself, those kinds of unforced errors will be the death of you. Especially when you're a team already dealing with big, unpreventable obstacles already in the first place.

The loss looked similar, the issues looked new.

Communication, or the lack thereof.

Near the end of the first quarter Penn State faced a short fourth down situation inside Michigan's side of the field. A few seconds passed, one unit stayed on the field while half the field goal team walked on. The result was a timeout and an overly emotional and uncharacteristically angry Franklin chasing down offensive coordinator John Donovan. Franklin chalked it up as a miscommunication, which was fairly obvious if you were paying attention.

But that issue didn't go away.

Facing another fourth down inside two minutes to play, Penn State let 15-25 seconds run off the clock before realizing that Michigan could simply kneel the ball down and finish out the game. The timeout, intentional safety and recovered onside kick that followed was a creative way to get out of the jam, but had Penn State not been penalized - perhaps wrongly so - the Nittany Lions would have had to go 60+ yards with even less time to work with.

A little detail, but little details can end up resulting in big problems. They cost Penn State two timeouts.

Just Kicking.

After having been at least a serviceable punter, Chris Gulla struggled to get the ball a substantial distance from the line of scrimmage Saturday. He punted five times for an average of 33 yards a kick. That made the field short for Penn State's defense and in many ways continued to give Michigan bursts of momentum as the crowd cheered poor punt after poor punt. 

The whole thing got so bad that by the time the game was over, Franklin would admit the punting position is still very much an open competition. The Nittany Lions aren't exactly overflowing with punters on the depth chart which means Gulla might just have to figure out what is going wrong all on his own. And at the end of the day, Gulla walked-on for a reason.

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Leadership, or something?

Receiver Geno Lewis didn't see much of the field on Saturday for reasons that weren't entirely clear -- even after the game. 

"It was the way the whole week worked out with practice and some other things based on film and things we've been evaluating all year long. There were a lot of factors that went into it. Not one specific reason." Franklin would say.

So the Big Ten's third leading receiver isn't making enough plays? Maybe he was banged up. That is something Franklin has on a short but strict list of things he won't talk about.

"I don't get into injuries. But there's a lot of factors that went into it. Film grades, practice, a lot of things that went into it. Based on the games all season long, looking at grades and how guys have been playing, missed assignments, execution, practice habits. There's always some health things that get into those things this time of year. There's a lot of factors. We also feel like some of those young guys deserve an opportunity."

So somehow, Penn State's offensive leader not named one Christian Hackenberg caught only three passes and hardly saw the field on Saturday because his film grades didn't add up and other players deserved that opportunity?

If that's a difficult answer for you to buy, you'd be correct.

The result was a loss in a game Penn State could have won. Mistakes doomed the Nittany Lions and new issues came to the surface to pile on top of old ones.

But it's telling that Franklin would say his team has a bye week at the right time after just coming out of a bye. Problems are mounting, issues are not being solved overnight and no reinforcements are en route to save the day.

Unfortunately, Penn State it won't have the luxury of playing once over a three week span for the remainder of the season, and that means figuring things out a lot faster.

If they can't, it could mean Saturday was only the start of a long and cold winter in a suddenly not so Happy Valley.

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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