Going into the anticipated rivalry matchup with Pitt last Saturday, the expectations were that the 13th ranked Nittany Lions would pull a chapter from last season's rout of the Panthers in a tsunami at Heinz Field, take care of business at home despite an annoying lightning delay, and coast into the bye week feeling good at 3-0.
The game came and went. Penn State won. The Lions are 3-0. But it can't be said that they are feeling too good after a surprising 17-10 final score to an inferior team.
There are a lot of things head coach James Franklin and the Lions need to clean up on the field before they face actual formidable opponents — most notably, fix whatever the heck they're trying to do on the offensive side of the ball. There have been three games played so far this season. Three games in non-conference action to look back on, critique, analyze, and fix before the Big Ten slate comes roaring in.
What's been going on with this team's offensive identity?
So far, there hasn't been much consistency. We saw the lack thereof during the Pitt game for sure, but we also saw it against Buffalo. Penn State is struggling to find its rhythm (or get its running backs into any sort of rhythm), and when it does eventually find it during games, they—for whatever reason—go away from the decisions and play calls that finally got them into that rhythm.
Noah Cain capped off a beautiful 13-play, 88-yard drive in the third quarter, and after that drive ended, Franklin and Co. never gave Cain the ball again in a very close, spirited game. Penn State has made it clear that it wants to rotate its backs as much as possible to get a feel for who excels in each situation before Big Ten play commences, but it also made the point that it wants to ride the "hot hand," despite very clearly not doing that with Cain. Franklin even mentioned in his post-game comments that he and the rest of the coaching staff agreed that they should've utilized Cain more vs. the Panthers because of his running style, and they just... didn't. There were many instances in short-yard situations as well that Cain would've made perfect sense to put in the backfield, and the coaching staff opted to put in the likes of Devyn Ford, the Lions' smallest back, for example. Ford is a fine running back, but it just didn't make any sense.
This is just one example of many odd choices, especially within the running game, and it definitely makes you scratch your head. The coaching staff definitely had a plan in place to rotate the backs in a specific manner vs. Pitt, but it's hard not to question those moves. Overthinking and being too cute have been common criticisms of Franklin in the past, and with choices like these, it is very clear why they haven't gone away.
Additionally, the decision to bomb the ball downfield during a late third and four situation while trying to run the clock out instead of have one of the backs—like Cain, for example—taking that snap to force Pitt to use one of its lasting timeouts was another frustrating move by the coaching staff that keeps saying it wants to close out games better. Sean Clifford was 0-for-8 on passing attempts for 20-plus yards at that point. Why throw (read: launch) that ball instead of hand it off to melt the clock? Even though Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers made dumb decisions of their own (like kick an ill-timed field goal on the one-yard line that ultimately cost them the game), and Penn State still managed to win, these questionable moves won't cut it against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan. It won't cut it against most of the Big Ten teams. As per recent evidence, that much is very clear.
It's good to remember that Penn State won the game and is still undefeated as it prepares for Maryland in a couple weeks, but at this point, it's difficult to really know how to feel about this Lions team in its current state and its coaching staff's decision making process.
The bye week, conveniently enough, might actually be coming at the best time.