Those who say that Penn State’s present-day predicament is the same as last season’s aren’t looking hard enough.
Yes, like 2017, the Nittany Lions lost to Ohio State by one point and followed it up with a soul-crushing loss to Michigan State that ended their College Football Playoff hopes. And like last year, Penn State led in the fourth quarter of both defeats, giving the losses a greater sting.
But the team that faces Indiana on Saturday is different than the one that won a Fiesta Bowl. And the road ahead of these Nittany Lions presents a far greater challenge than what James Franklin’s 2017 squad had to overcome.
Last season, the Nittany Lions returned to Happy Valley from East Lansing licking their wounds. Their 27-24 loss to the Spartans was unexpected and put an end to the thought that Penn State might sneak into the playoff as a one-loss team. But thankfully for Franklin and his guys, Penn State had a cakewalk to the postseason.
After consecutive losses, Penn State finished out the regular season with home games against Rutgers and Nebraska, followed by a trip to Maryland — three Big Ten punching bags to beat up on after frustrating defeats. The Scarlet Knights, Cornhuskers and Terps owned a combined record of 12-24 last year. Maryland worked with a third-string quarterback, Nebraska coach Mike Riley hit full lame-duck status, and Rutgers was, well, Rutgers.
In short, the Nittany Lions had it easy to close out 2017. They beat up on bottom dwellers, boasting a combined margin of victory of 157-53.
But that won’t happen in 2018. Sure, Penn State still has Rutgers and Maryland on its schedule, but the road to running the table is rough. After Saturday’s game at Indiana, the Nittany Lions face Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks. According to Bill Connolly’s S&P+ ratings — a rankings system driven by advanced analytics — the Wolverines are the No. 4 team in the country. Meanwhile, the Badgers (No. 16) and Hawkeyes (No. 21) crack the ratings’ top-25.
Penn State does have an 18.9 percent chance to win out, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. That’s the 12th-best mark in the country, so a 10-2 record and trip to the Rose Bowl isn’t out of the question.
But Penn State will be tested in this four-game stretch — far more than they were at any point last year post-Michigan State.
There’s time to improve — and it can start against the Hoosiers — but Penn State isn’t getting it done in critical stat categories, relative to 2017.
Franklin said after Wednesday’s practice that the numbers that matter for a successful offense are third-down efficiency, turnover ratio and red-zone scoring. Let’s take a look at how the Nittany Lions stack up.
- Penn State sits 82nd in the country, converting 37.5 percent of third-down opportunities. The Nittany Lions finished 2017 fifth in the nation with a 48 percent mark and converted at a 39.6 percent clip after the loss to Michigan State. Because of their third down and field goal struggles with freshman kicker Jake Pinegar, Penn State has gone for it on fourth-down nine times and converted on four tries.
- The Nittany Lions have eight takeaways through six games. The only Big Ten team with fewer is Nebraska. Of course, Penn State’s defensive backs dropped a pair of interceptions against the Spartans, which would have helped the team’s 57th-ranked turnover margin. After last year’s Michigan State game, the Nittany Lions boasted 22 takeaways and only 12 turnovers.
- This year, Penn State has scored touchdowns on 24 of 28 red-zone trips — an 85.7 percent success rate. The Nittany Lions had to settle for a costly field goal against Michigan State after a failed third-and-goal fade at the Spartans’ 2-yard line. But overall, they’re hitting at an incredible clip, much like last season’s 77.97 percent success rate (fifth-best in FBS).
So of Franklin’s three keys, the Nittany Lions are batting 1 for 3. Not ideal. And when you add in the fact that Trace McSorley has thrown for 229 passing yards or fewer in all but one game this year, it’s clear the offense isn’t the same as it was under Joe Moorhead when Penn State faced — and conquered — adversity in 2017.
Fans don’t want to hear this now, but Franklin has mentioned it since Big Ten media days in July: The Nittany Lions are a young football team.
Penn State returned 12 starters in 2018, tied with Minnesota for the fewest in the Big Ten. Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki are gone. So are Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen, Grant Haley and the core of Brent Pry’s defense. Don’t forget the coaching staff, either, with Moorhead, running backs coach Charles Huff and wide receivers coach Josh Gattis bolting for the SEC.
That’s a lot to replace on the field, but also in the Lasch Building. And it has a lot to do with how the Nittany Lions will respond to back-to-back losses this time around.
“There are less of those guys that have been through this type of adversity before,” Franklin said in his Tuesday press conference. “Each week when we watch the cut-ups and go through situations as we’re coming up with the gameplan, we’re typically watching the previous game against that opponent from the year before, and you see guys like Marcus Allen who played a lot of football for us and Jason Cabinda who played a lot of football for us and the D-tackles and so on and so forth.
“We have less of those guys on offense and defense, so those guys (like McSorley and captain Nick Scott) have to have stronger voices for us. There’s no doubt about it. They have been through this adversity, and they have been through the challenges before. We have to push our way through it.”
Will McSorley and Scott, as well as Shareef Miller, Juwan Johnson and company, have a loud enough voice to rally the Nittany Lions to a Rose Bowl berth? Or will Penn State look flat in Bloomington and stumble to a 9-3 mark or worse?
We’ll find out a lot about these Nittany Lions come Saturday.