Penn State Football: Was 2018 A Failure? Not Really. But It Depends On How You View The Program
Sitting at Gate 58 in the Orlando International Airport just a few minutes after 7 a.m., there were two Penn State fans right across from me.
I thought about talking to them, doing a little early-morning journalism, but they were both reading a book and everyone goes to the airport secretly hoping to maintain a certainly level of anonymity as they zombie-walk through a crowd of strangers.
So instead I considered what I might have asked them. What they thought of Penn State's loss to Kentucky, if they felt like nine wins was a good season, if Ricky Rahne was calling the right plays, and what in world to make of a receiving corps that seemingly dropped as many passes as it caught.
It's an interesting question set if you really think about it. In its own way, it's a sign of how much has changed when it comes to problem identification with Penn State football.
Just a few years ago, pointing to the root cause of any given issue was difficult. At the height of the sanction era the lines were a lot more blurred.
Was Penn State's offensive line bad because of coaching, or because players were forced to play earlier than before due to a lack of depth? Was Christian Hackenberg just not that good, or did Penn State find itself forced into playing a quarterback it didn't have a system for and was ill-equipped to adapt to?
It was hard to look at any given failed third down and say with something approximating authority that "this was caused by the sanctions," and no easier to say "that was bad coaching." Like most things it was a bit of both, but it was always hazy. Evaluation columns boiled down to: Things weren't good because, well, reasons.
If nothing else, Penn State football's issues have gone from vague to visual. If the sanction era was hard to diagnose, now it's a little easier to quantify what is going on. Good players dropping passes and an otherwise capable special teams unit struggling are straightforward to see. Late game losses have become easier to unpack. You can see those issues and at least hypothesize their causes in real time.
In many ways, this past season is an unique case study when it comes to trying to digest the state of the program itself. There are probably two schools of thought to considering the big picture.
• The first: Penn State has already arrived at the doorway to elite.
In this view, the 2018 season was Penn State's failure to make the most of its talent and opportunities. From this perspective Penn State might not be Alabama or Clemson, but the gap is small enough that on its best day, there would be a competitive game between the Nittany Lions and either opponent. Equally true, losses to Michigan State and Kentucky were self-inflicted missteps and not the somewhat unavoidable reality that you don't win every game against teams of relatively similar talent.
It's hard to say that there isn't some truth here. Penn State can largely point at its own execution as why it lost three games this year. It can look at the operational indifference of getting KJ Hamler the ball for entire halves at a time. Similarly, the Nittany Lions really ought to be on a three-game winning streak against Ohio State, and yet they have lost two straight. Ironically, in the past two games Penn State has lost to the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions have played their best football, the only victory at least partially the result of a bit of luck.
In total, the bulk of the program-building phase is behind Franklin and Penn State. The results should reflect that.
• The second school of thought: Penn State's 2016 and 2017 seasons were not entirely representative samples of where the program really is be it talent or coaching.
From this perspective, when you pair a capable defense with one of the best quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and hands receivers in Penn State history, it masks structural deficiencies. Essentially, Penn State overachieved relative to where it was post-sanctions because of a perfect storm of talent. This was a sign of a the generally cynical nature of football and not the result of the program itself arriving at a new, sustainable plateau.
When you remove all of "all-time" players and enter a lot of unknowns, you're getting mixed results nine times out of 10. That's what you got in 2018.
There is truth to this as well, and, in the interest of transparency, it's the view to which I tend to ascribe. Penn State has recruited very well under James Franklin's watch, but that talent takes time to truly permeate the roster, it takes time to mature and there is no guarantee in the first place that it will. It has to be coached, it has to work hard and it has to pan out. Ohio State is good because the gap between Plan A and Plan C is not that wide. It allows for more permutations of individual career paths because nobody is rushed. Short of injury, everyone shows up exactly when they're needed, exactly when they're ready to arrive.
In this light, Penn State's 2018 season shouldn't have come as a huge surprise. The Nittany Lions are very talented on paper relative to, say, four years ago, but young and somewhat inexperienced. They were replacing tons of players and multiple meaningful assistants. There was no tangible evidence beyond the existence of Trace McSorley that Penn State was going to continue to be a world-beating team. Talent made Penn State better than average, and it got a better than average result.
it doesn't take anyone off the hook, though.
Which brings us to probably the two biggest hurdles facing the program right now. If we're working from the assumption Penn State will continue to recruit well and increase the quality of depth and talent across the roster, which removes "get good players" from the equation, then the hurdles, in my view, are as follows.
• Attract everyone.
If Penn State really wants to sustain success, it has to be able to sustain staff quality. David Corley was not an improvement over Josh Gattis, something Franklin has ultimately confirmed by firing him. Phil Galliano's special teams unit has been nothing short of a weekly disaster. Wherever the blame lies, that's the reality. He survived the chopping block, for now.
Ricky Rahne was a sensible promotion that might prove to develop into a steady hand at the offensive helm, but the late-game losses speak for themselves and a few head scratchers along the way didn't help. But all in all, if he's getting partial blame for four losses he has to get partial credit for nine wins. More on that later.
Ja'Juan Seider's running backs were plenty competent, and his recruiting abilities have made him a handy asset. So fair play to him. Fumbles were an issue, but it was probably unreasonable to assume Saquon Barkley's zero-fumble lifestyle would continue. Although, former running backs coach Charles Huff went an entire season at Mississippi State without a fumble, and without Barkley. Nevertheless...
So the general overarching theme remains. Penn State, by and large, has sent more rising assistants to programs than it has attracted. It has to become a place where Josh Gattis goes, not where Josh Gattis leaves. Is it pay? Is it working environment, as Bob Shoop alleged? Whatever the case, whatever the reason, if James Franklin's strength is the ability to surround himself with the right people, be it through hires or internal development, his success will continue to be linked to his ability to repeatedly do that. This is particularly important relative to Franklin's own view of the program. If he feels Penn State has arrived, the leashes should be shorter, if it is still building, continuity is an asset in its own right, even if his help is imperfect.
• The end game.
To steal a quote, "We're in the end game now." Dr. Strange said before (SPOILERS) and (MORE SPOILERS).
And for Penn State that's pretty much where the program is. Whichever school of thought you believe in from above, Penn State is theoretically in a position to be competitive in every single Big Ten game it plays. All things being equal it ought to be able to stumble to eight wins every season and then the quality of that particular team will determine the rest.
That comes down to those late game situations, those final 10 minutes. And for as much as fans want to point to Rahne for his inability to close, Joe Moorhead was just as present for late-game losses to Ohio State and USC. His offense may have been more visually pleasing and put up more points, but those issues remained in crunch time.
So, for my money, the issue goes beyond the generalities of who is calling the plays. And sure, winning high profile games is hard, but there is a reason why the Ohio States and Alabamas of the world win them more often than not. Whatever the answer is, Franklin will need to find it because blocked field goals only come around so often.
All told, how you view Penn State's 2018 season is a matter of how you view the issues and where you view the program as a whole. It's hard to argue that 2018 was a success for the Nittany Lions given their somewhat self-inflicted problems, but it's hard to say it was a complete failure given the number of questions the team had entering the season. Winning is winning.
What is clear though is that the James Franklin era is rapidly approaching a point where the four games lost are starting to matter more than the nine games won.
How quickly he is able to find answers to the program's most pressing issues will go a long way toward the longevity of both the program and his tenure.