Penn State fell to 6-3 on the 2018 season after a humiliating 42-7 loss at Michigan. Their only hope for a third straight 10-win season now rests with winning out and winning their bowl game, which will certainly not be a New Year's Day Six game.
It happens to most programs. Not every season can be a rousing success. Teams with holes in proven experience, lacking depth at key positions, and dealing with a number of significant coaching changes often struggle to compete with the nation's best teams. There's only one Alabama and only one Nick Saban.
But the manner in which Penn State lost its games to Ohio State and Michigan State lingers over the rest of the season. Key mistakes by the coaching staff and by important players have left fans asking "What if?" too often. And it begs the question of what to take out of a season that is going to be a disappointment for most who follow the Nittany Lions.
Lesson 1: Ricky Rahne is not Joe Moorhead
Maybe the biggest miscalculation James Franklin had this past offseason was thinking that Moorhead's success was the result of his scheme. Franklin promoted tight end coach Ricky Rahne to offensive coordinator, citing his ability to pick up on Moorhead's system over his two years coaching the Nittany Lions offense. Before Moorhead's arrival, Rahne coached the quarterbacks - specifically Christian Hackenberg, which did not go well.
Moorhead's system makes sense and fits with Penn State's personnel. But it's not the true reason he was a success. His playcalling instincts were ultimately what elevated the team under him. And those sorts of instincts are innate, not the sort of thing a guy like Rahne is simply going to absorb through two years sitting in the same film room.
It is clear that Rahne has erred on numerous occasions since taking over. He has at times been predictable, confounding, and unable to react to what opposing defenses are doing. In evaluating where to go moving forward, Franklin can't simply look at how well Rahne understands the offensive playbook and schemes. He needs someone in there who is going to be able to think on his feet on gameday.
The offensive coordinator of James Franklin's Penn State program needs to be the guy who makes quick decisions and can manage the clock. Moorhead was an outside voice who excelled at this. Does anyone believe that Rahne is a guy who could have led the winning drive against Iowa in 2017?
Franklin took the wrong lessons from Moorhead's success. He may need to look outside his building once again to find the answer for the program going forward.
Lesson 2: Position coaches matter
In terms of pure on-the-field execution, no position has disappointed fans and let down the team more than the 2018 wide receiver group. Juwan Johnson, Brandon Polk, and DeAndre Thompkins have combined to have atrocious 2018 seasons. Even simply plateauing at where they were in 2017 would be a significant improvement on what they have brought to the table.
All three have failed to consistently get open, dropped an unconscionable number of passes right in their hands, and forced the Nittany Lions to look elsewhere for solutions when they could not really afford to. Jahan Dotson's redshirt has been burned, Trace McSorley's legs are being relied upon more than ever, and the offense is suddenly a question mark.
Josh Gattis's departure for Alabama hurt more than fans anticipated. It is clear now just how much of an impact he had. Making things more difficult, the team's current wide receiver coach is David Corley, who was hired from Army to coach running backs. The move to wide receivers coach was one of necessity once Ja'Juan Seider became available, and while Seider was a great hire who made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail, wide receiver play has suffered with Corley at the helm. This is speculation, but it would not be surprising at all to see Penn State make a change there this offseason, as it is likely not the fit either party was looking for when Corley was first hired.
Lesson 3: Experience matters...
Aside from weakside linebacker Koa Farmer, every starter on Penn State's defense is different from 2017. Only Farmer, safety Nick Scott, and cornerback Amani Oruwariye are seniors in that lineup. We probably did not appreciate just how drastic the turnover was. Experienced corners Oruwariye and John Reid, along with defensive linemen like Shareef Miller and Kevin Givens, made it easy to think that this team would survive the transition better than most.
That has not been the case. The starting defensive line has been fine, but injuries to Shane Simmons and Ellison Jordan exploited the lack of depth, with so many sophomores and freshmen in the wings. Those young players have not been able to step up and make an impact.
Linebacker has been a disaster. We'll get to this more in a moment, but Jan Johnson is a former walk-on that the staff eagerly pulls at the first sign of a passing down, while Cam Brown and Jarvis Miller have combined to look wholly inadequate at strongside linebacker. And the only guy with experience at linebacker ... well ...
Lesson 4: ...Except when experience is overvalued
Farmer is a prime example of the coaching staff being too deferential to experience at times. Micah Parsons, as a true freshman, has outclassed Farmer in every game and in basically every way. Even with his youthful mistakes, Parsons has been much more consistent than Farmer, who at this point is clearly not a Big Ten-caliber defender. Re-watching games for snap counts has been a chore over the last few weeks, and having to re-live all of Farmer's awful mistakes is a big reason why.
Parsons should be starting and Farmer should be limited to nothing more than giving him breaks. I understand not wanting to alienate your senior class of loyal players; I'm not calling for Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford to take over for Trace McSorley. But playing Farmer as much as they are is such an example of a poor evaluation of talent that it may be insulting to other players in the locker room. There is a certain point at which it becomes evident who the better option is, and we are well past that with Farmer and Parsons.
Lesson 5: Recalculating expectations
Too often in sports, fans fall into the trap of expecting linear development. No one thought Penn State would move on from Moorhead and Barkley like nothing happened, but with recruiting still excellent and a proven senior quarterback returning behind largely the same offensive line, fans could be forgiven for thinking a favorable schedule just might let things fall into place for the Nittany Lions in 2018.
It obviously has not played out that way. The talent has not caught up to the experience yet, as the senior class is small and limited in ability. Moreover, the team is relying heavily on freshmen in a manner they had been trying to avoid for years. It should have some benefits as these players get older, but it hurts in the meantime.
James Franklin is a good coach, that much is clear. You do not have the success he has had as a head coach without being one. But he has limitations that most, if not all, are aware of by now. He did a great thing in 2016 by hiring an outside offensive coordinator, showing a lack of ego that is rare in this coaching profession. But he failed to make the same calculation in 2018, and may have made a difference.
Can Franklin do it again? One of his great skills as a college head coach is that he recruits coaches like he recruits players. Stories of his attention to coaching conferences, graduate assistant relationship building, and interest in learning as much as possible about what's out there are well known. He very well may need to prove that it is indeed a strength by bringing in top quality assistants once again this offseason to get things back on track. The difference between being great and being elite just may lie in his ability to do so.