Going into Saturday's game, no one realistically expected a Penn State win. In fact, no one really expected Penn State to hang with Michigan over the course of 60 minutes. Jim Harbaugh's squad has an insane amount of talent, coupled with the most experience of any program in college football. Meanwhile, Penn State has a meager 24 scholarship players in the junior and senior classes combined.
With all that said, it would probably be a fair assessment to say that very few people expected Penn State to be run out of the stadium by the end of the first quarter. The Lions were outclassed in every possible aspect of the game from the opening kickoff to the final whistle. For Nittany Lion fans looking for signs of a closing gap between the best of the Big Ten East and their team, there were few, if any, positives to take away.
Perhaps the most disappointing, as one of several thousand Penn State fans in Michigan Stadium, was the way the Lions, and specifically the coaching staff, handled things once going down big. Do not get me wrong here. There is no coaching around the entire starting linebacker unit being out injured. There is no coaching around the youth of the defensive line. Michigan was able to assert its will at the line of scrimmage, totally disrupting anything PSU wanted to do on either side of the ball. This is a talent thing, not a coaching thing, and Penn State is not there yet.
However, there was a field goal from inside the opposition five yard line, despite trailing by four scores. It was the second straight PSU/UM game where Penn State kicked a field goal while knocking on the doorstep. There were punts from midfield, on short yardage situations, while trailing by multiple scores in the second half. There was a general lack of urgency from a team and staff that entered Saturday's contest playing with house money. After being hit in the mouth early and often, the team, from the players on down to the staff, became reactionary and conservative.
Do not mistake this for a "James Franklin must go" column. I am on record, in multiple places, as saying this staff deserves, at minimum, four seasons. The very last thing Penn State needs at this point is more disruption among its football staff. Yes, the results must come, and I firmly believe they are coming, but Saturday's game felt very much like a step backwards.
There was no emotion and very little aggressiveness from a team that needed such things against a superior opponent. After failing to convert a fourth down early, the Lions seemed to revert to the conservative version we saw in the two previous seasons, looking to avoid any sense of risk. And the worst part is that we saw Franklin become a darling of the college football community because of the frequency with which he took risks. He didn't always succeed, but he was willing to do the unorthodox to win, and in a game like the one we saw on Saturday, that shot in the arm was something Penn State desperately needed.
I am, at the most basic level, a fan of this program. Yes, I cover them for a website and try to analyze what I see. But I do that first and foremost as a fan. For the first time, I felt a frustration with where this team finds itself in this staff's third season. After steps forward in the recovery from the NCAA sanctions, a 39 point loss in a performance that felt very much like men against boys, looks very much like a big move in the wrong direction.