Penn State Football Has Reached a Critical Inflection Point

By Nick Polak on November 10, 2020 at 2:09 pm
Nov 7, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin stands with quarterback Sean Clifford (14) during the playing of the alma mater following the game against the Maryland Terrapins at Beaver Stadium.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

As the last few seconds of Saturday's shocking result ticked off the clock, I found myself truly wondering whether or not we are looking at the low point of the James Franklin era at Penn State.

This is an impossible thing to know in the moment. In fact, we won't really know until Franklin's time in Happy Valley has come and gone. There have moments before that felt like they fit the same criteria at the time, after all. The brutal loss to Michigan in 2016 was certainly a standout time in that regard. However, that same team went on to beat Ohio State, go to the Rose Bowl, and jumpstart one of the most successful, sustained stretches of football in Penn State history. Looking back now, that loss was more of a blip on the radar than anything else.

In the end, that might be what this 0-3 start to the season ends up as, too. This team is certainly still capable of turning around and winning out the rest of the way in 2020. If they don't, we could be watching the low point of the James Franklin era playing out in front of us. One way or another, we've reached an impasse, and several things need to change.

It starts on the field. We were warned that the transition to the new offense under Kirk Ciarrocca may be a bumpy one, as the first year with his system has been a tough one at both of his previous stops. Now, I firmly believe that this was still the right hire and a great one at that. Perhaps with a normal offseason, things would look better than they currently do. But it's not the transition to the new offense that has me worried – that was always going to take time. I would completely understand if the struggles that quarterback Sean Clifford was experiencing were timing-based and communication-based. Such issues have appeared, but the bigger problem appears to simply be Clifford's accuracy and decision-making, which were the same things that plagued him in 2019. Timing, communication, and execution are all things that will come with time, but if the guy throwing the ball isn't putting it where it needs to be and isn't throwing to the player he should be throwing to, that's a larger problem.

Sean Cliford
Sean Clifford has struggled to start 2020, but his offensive line hasn't given him much help. (Adam Cairns, Columbus Dispatch)

One of the primary forces behind Clifford's inaccuracy and lack of confidence is the subpar offensive line play we've seen. With five returning starters (Mike Miranda and CJ Thorpe were both pseudo-starters in 2019) expectations for this unit were high. They have been a bit better each year previous to this one, culminating in a dominating rushing performance in the 2019 Cotton Bowl. But they look to have regressed in 2020 and it's forced Clifford to develop an even worse sense of happy feet in the pocket. This is the area of the team that has been most affected by the pandemic, in my opinion. Under Ciarrocca and new position coach Phil Trautwein, the line transitioned to a zone-blocking scheme this fall. Changing up your blocking system with a group of veterans who haven't been under that system before is tough enough, but doing it during a pandemic with altered practices and a focus on avoiding physical contact is nearly impossible. It's the reason why we've seen the line do well against straight-up, one-on-one rushers, but struggle with blitzes and stunts. They simply don't have the experience with the system to pick up any trickery among rushers, nor have they developed the communication yet to account for it. Not only has this led to an inability to protect its quarterback for four quarters, but it's failed to provide any sort of room in the run game.

Then there's the defense. Unlike the offense, the only turnover on the defense on the coaching side was defensive line coach John Scott Jr. The struggles here seem to be due to a lack of communication and more importantly, a lack of preparedness. The defense as a whole has seven new starters, PJ Mustipher, Jayson Oweh, Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, Joey Porter Jr., and Jaquan Brisker. Of course, a full offseason would have been great for them, especially the linebacker corps. which consists of three first-time starters, but they simply look lost out there.

Against Maryland, Taulia Tagovailoa had wide-open throws like this one all day long. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

The bigger problem, though, is the degree to which they just don't seem like they're being put in positions to succeed. We've seen multiple errors with substitutions, we've seen players running on the field late, and just a general sense of discombobulation. Some of that is on the players, sure, but having the right guys on the field at the right time is one of the few things that a coach can truly control on game day, and Brent Pry and his defensive staff are dropping the ball in that regard. Take the Jeremy Ruckert touchdown for the Buckeyes in their Week Two win over Penn State, for example. Despite the fact that they were coming out of a timeout, the defense had only 10 men on the field and Ruckert was able to grab the easiest touchdown he'll ever catch. That sort of thing is simply unacceptable, and it's an error that is 100% on the coaching staff.

That miscommunication and misalignment is also the driving factor behind why the defense continues to be gashed by big plays. All four Maryland touchdowns on Saturday came from 30 yards out or more. For a defense that has been so stingy in the past, that is a mind-bending statistic. Making this even worse is the fact that the offense's only avenue towards creating big plays at this point seems to be "hope Jahan Dotson can make a spectacular catch." The team that had done so well for years with limiting big plays and destroyed opposing defenses with big plays of its own is now being tormented by them.

Now, all of this would be bad enough, if you didn't consider recruiting. It's not that Penn State is recruiting poorly, but it's a very disappointing class compared to what they had been doing under Franklin. The 2021 recruiting class currently sits at No. 31 in the country, which is No. 8 in the Big Ten. The last time Penn State finished ranked that low in the conference was when they ended up with the eighth-best class in 2012.

Even more troubling is the fact that not a single one of the top-10 ranked recruits in Pennsylvania are slated to attend Penn State. That could change given that Lonnie White Jr. is likely in line for a rating bump, but it's still a bit shocking to see. The Lions were never expected to land some of those names (Kyle McCord, Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Marvin Harrison Jr., and Elliot Donald were always going to be longshots or impossibilities) but missing on all three of Nolan Rucci, Derrick Davis Jr., and Elijah Jeudy is a gut punch. To be clear, I like the class Penn State has quite a bit, there are some really great players in this group. It's just not the standard that fans have become accustomed to.

To be fair, there are two major caveats to this. Firstly, the 2022 class is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation. There is a lot of time left before that class signs, but the staff is off to an incredible start with that group. Secondly, the pandemic really hamstrung Penn State recruiting-wise. Such a big part of how the staff lands its recruits is the on-campus experience, which simply hasn't been an option. Still, when you combine the on-field performance with the current state of the recruiting class, the optics aren't great.

It's also important to note that Penn State is hardly the only big name team struggling to start the season. But losing handily to a team that they had outscored 97-3 in their last two meetings is simply shocking, especially with the way that the Terrapins came out and clocked Pry's defense directly in the jaw.

The positive side of all of this is that this entire narrative could be flipped on its head with a bounce-back win over Nebraska on Saturday and improved play over the rest of the season. That's what makes this moment so important for the program. A win over a decent-enough Nebraska team could be all the players need to regain their confidence and get back on track. A loss, however, could truly send things into a tailspin.

It's a position that very few, if any, expected the program to be in after three weeks. Given all that the team has accomplished since that 2016 season, it barely feels possible that they could be winless after three games, regardless of opponent.

But here we are, at another critical inflection point for James Franklin's program. In the past, his teams have responded strongly to such moments. Let's hope they can do it again.

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