Taking A Hard Look At Penn State

If Michigan's season is a disappointment, Penn State's is an abject failure. Here's a look at what's going on in Happy Valley.
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Michigan fans were ready to revolt after the Wisconsin game and while the triple overtime win against Rutgers helped quiet the riot a bit, the Wolverines are 2-3 and a lot of people are still beyond disappointed with where the program is in year six of the Jim Harbaugh era. 

So imagine how the Penn State fanbase feels.

The Nittany Lions were ranked inside the top ten to begin the season and are sitting at 0-5. In fact, Penn State became the first-ever team to start the season 0-5 after it was ranked in the top 10 of the preseason Associated Press Poll.

Ouch.

We've talked about how it happened to Michigan A LOT, but the average U-M fan probably isn't sure exactly what's going on with Penn State. Luckily, we were able to catch up with Mark Wogenrich of All Penn State to get the scoop.

1. How did Penn State get here? 

Penn State invested so much into this season, from June voluntary workouts to the September installation of its new offense, that the shocking Week 1 overtime loss to Indiana likely took a larger mental toll than the team acknowledged. 

Season-ending injuries to tight end Pat Freiermuth and running back Noah Cain, a high-profile opt-out in linebacker Micah Parsons and a career-ending medical decision for running back Journey Brown have robbed Penn State of some of its best players. 

Head coach James Franklin openly has discussed his struggle coaching without his family at home (they’re living elsewhere for medical reasons). The whole swirl, certainly prodded by inconsistent play at all levels, has Penn State off to its worst start in school history. 

It’s astonishing that Penn State began the season needing two victories to join Michigan in the exclusive 900-win club and still doesn’t have them.

2. What are the primary issues plaguing the team? 

Blocking, tackling and quarterback play. Penn State isn’t very good at any of them. The offense doesn’t have a starting quarterback (more on that later), is down to its fifth- and sixth-string running backs and has made the QB draw its identity. The defense is shaky up the middle at all three levels, isn’t getting consistent linebacker play and ranks last in the Big Ten in red-zone stops. Every opponent has led Penn State by double-digits at halftime. And the Lions are -9 in turnover margin after finishing the 2019 season at +8.

3. What's the situation at quarterback? 

Uncertain. Penn State has committed 13 turnovers, all of which have been attributed to the quarterbacks. Initial starter Sean Clifford had eight turnovers (including six interceptions and two sack-fumbles returned for touchdowns) before being replaced by Will Levis. Starting last week against Iowa, Levis fumbled twice, both of which the Hawkeyes turned into touchdown drives, before Clifford returned. Clifford threw touchdown passes on his first two attempts, then threw two more interceptions, including a pick-6. Opponents have scored 51 points off those turnovers. Who starts Saturday is anyone’s guess, but it’s likely both will end up playing. 

4. How much longer will James Franklin last? 

James Franklin will be Penn State’s head coach in 2021, as long as he wants the job. His buyout is $32 million, which certainly can be negotiated down or ended if he gets another job, but still looms over an athletic department that projects a $75 million shortfall in its 2021 budget and has to hire a men’s basketball coach. Franklin also has accumulated enough capital from going 42-11, with a Big Ten title and two New Year’s 6 bowl wins, over the past four seasons to write off 2020 as an outlier. 

5. Is there any hope for the future?

Receiver Jahan Dotson has been exceptional, with six touchdowns and a 17 yards-per-catch average. Best known for making every reliable catch, Dotson has made some acrobatic grabs this year as well. Further, defensive ends Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh are the highest-impact players on defense. Though he doesn’t have a sack, Oweh delivers enough pressure that requires defensive scheming. That said, it’s possible all three leave for the NFL after this season. What Penn State needs now, though, is a win or two, a bit of positive thinking entering the offseason and then a normally functioning set of spring drills to hit the reset switch.