Jahan Dotson does not make locker-room speeches or thunder from a pulpit. But the Penn State receiver has seen "the power of his voice," his position coach Taylor Stubblefield said last week, and is beginning to emerge from his quiet.
Dotson did that Saturday night, laying bare his frustration with Penn State's performance in an inexplicable 35-19 loss to Maryland.
"We're not as one right now," Dotson said. "We're not a unit right now. There's a lot of different things going on. There's distractions, basically. There are just distractions that we shouldn't be focused on.
"We've got to be focused on getting in the win column and nothing else, literally. That's the biggest thing."
Later, as he finished his media Zoom session in a dark and quiet Beaver Stadium, Dotson said, "Right now, to be completely honest, we're not a good football team."
Penn State is 0-3 for the first time in 19 years, having allowed Maryland, which hadn't scored a touchdown in more than 213 minutes of game time against the Lions, into the end zone four times in the first half. The Lions gave up four offensive touchdowns of 34 yards or longer, a defensive touchdown on a sack/fumble and a third-down conversion rate in the first half of 80 percent.
It was a stunningly flat fiasco, perhaps the most incomprehensible of James Franklin's tenure at Penn State. It easily was the most disconcerting, considering opponent and result, since the Lions' 27-10 loss to Temple to start the 2015 season.
In that game, Penn State allowed quarterback Christian Hackenberg to be sacked 10 times. On Saturday, Maryland sacked quarterback Sean Clifford seven times and pressured him into the first of two interceptions.
Clifford looked dazed afterward. Dotson said he was hurting.
"I couldn't imagine how his body feels," the receiver said.
Right now, the body of Penn State football is hurting. The Lions have lost three games in a variety of ways: sloppiness, unpreparedness and simply by having less talent.
It further didn't help that, during the first half, one of the team's top remaining recruiting prospects announced his commitment to LSU. Safety Derrick Davis Jr., a Pennsylvania star at Gateway High in Monroeville, made the announcement while Penn State trailed 21-7.
Tight end Pat Freiermuth said he, quarterback Sean Clifford and center Michal Menet circled briefly after the game to gather some answers. They couldn't.
"We just don’t know," Freiermuth said. "That's the most frustrating thing. I'm thinking about it right now, and I just don't know what to do. And it's very frustrating."
Coach James Franklin traced a stoic, if somber, tone through the postgame, noting generally all the surprising ways Maryland dominated his team. He seemed stunned mostly that his offense couldn't run the ball or protect Clifford or that his defense couldn't halt Maryland's big-play offense.
Franklin referenced the laundry list of corrections but didn't dive into the deeper reasons for them. Some players did, though, and they were pretty candid.
As Dotson was addressing his issues, Freiermuth mentioned accountability several times. Both players said some teammates freelanced too often, trying to make plays on their own (even if with good intentions) rather than within the system.
Freiermuth said "the energy wasn't there," a surprising admission from a team captain, particularly considering the Lions spent last week describing their hunger to turn around the season.
And defensive end Jayson Oweh said he saw a group "just trying to make plays on our own."
"Players have to hold each other accountable," Freiermuth said. "That's not happening right now."
As for Clifford, he held himself entirely accountable for a first half in which he completed just six of 20 passes, couldn't find receivers and threw two second-half interceptions.
Clifford had strings of six and seven consecutive incompletions in the first half, a combination of multiple forces. But Franklin never wavered from his starting quarterback, even after Clifford's interception on the first play of a third-quarter series.
"You want to do everything you possibly can with your starting quarterback to give them a chance to be successful and to rally the team," Franklin said. "The guy's in that position for a reason. In the second half we still felt like we had an opportunity to go out and get this swung in the other direction. And at the time, we felt like it was the right decision."
Franklin has some hard decisions now. He has a team that promises not to fracture from within but is showing signs of playing outside his command. There's little structure. Heads are spinning everywhere. The sideline was a ghost Saturday night.
Franklin bled for Penn State to have this season, relocated his family for it, turned himself into an amateur virologist to keep his team eligible for it. He never once considered that the Lions work so hard getting to the field only to find so much dissatisfaction on it.
He's not alone.
"Mentally, I’m pissed," Clifford said. "That’s probably the only way I can describe it. We’re an 0-3 football team. I've never been on an 0-3 football team. I've never lost like this in my life. To say I'm disappointed and frustrated are understatements."
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