Normally in this space, you get a chance to read a more in-depth recap of the previous day's Penn State football game. We all have a day to catch our breaths, maybe watch the game a second time, and share our thoughts. That will not be the case today.
As I have gotten older, I like to think that I am a bit more relaxed in my sports fandom. The wins are fun, but not the be-all and end-all. The losses, while frustrating, do not ruin my day. But yesterday was not one of those days. This has nothing to do with the now vanished 74-year undefeated streak against Temple ending. It really has nothing to do with losing to Temple at all. It has everything to do with how it happened.
I was a student through the depths of the "dark years," graduating in May of 2005. I have seen my share of terrible Penn State football. But what I watched yesterday is almost unforgivable. It is not that we lost to Temple. I give full credit to Temple for beating Penn State. There is no doubt they were the better team, and deserved the convincing win. Live it up, Owls. Rather, it is how we lost to Temple.
Everything started out well enough. It was 10-0, the offense appeared in sync, the defense was dominant, and I was having fun. It even seemed as if the much-maligned offensive line had at least become "mediocre." I cannot pinpoint the exact moment it all went to shit, but after taking that 10-0 lead, and racking up 128 yards, Penn State's offense was shut out, and gained just 55 yards the rest of the game. That's 55 yards in 51 minutes and 34 seconds. If you want to get even more depressed, that's about 1.06 yards per minute
I watched a 2003 offense coordinated by some combination of Joe Paterno, Fran Ganter, and Jay Paterno that did better than that, relying Michael Robinson playing every spot on the field, save for the line, undersized but gritty receiver Terrance Phillips, and Zack Mills fighting through every conceivable injury. It wasn't pretty, but they fought every week with what they had. Oh, and they beat Temple 23-13 to open that season, one of just three wins.
Any rational thinking Penn State fan would agree that this 2015 edition of the Nittany Lions is awash in talent on offense. Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall, Mike Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton, Christian Hackenberg (we'll get to that poor guy a little later), Geno Lewis, Juwan Johnson, Akeel Lynch, Saquon Barkley, and quite a few others, would have had star roles on that 2003 team. But how often were any of those guys used today?
Hamilton caught 82 passes a year ago as a redshirt freshman. He was targeted twice today. Chris Godwin emerged as a legit all-around threat at the end of the 2014 season. He was barely noticed until the very end of the game. Mike Gesicki could be the most athletic player on the offense, and save for a seam pass early (which was tipped at the line), barely factored into the offense. Akeel Lynch busted a 42 yard run for a score, but only touched the ball nine other times.
After the game, James Franklin said it's tough to run much when you can't block much. Forgive me, coach, but I refuse to believe that Penn State's offensive line is so bad, that our student-athletes are so incapable, that we can only run a telegraphed jet sweep, a fake jet sweep power play, a straight RB power play out of the pistol, or a five yard out/hitch/slant. Hell, that offensive line you so conveniently threw under the bus postgame provided protection for Christian Hackenberg to step up into the pocket, step into the throw, and fire a seed to Chris Godwin on the game's lone touchdown drive. How does it happen that the next time Chris Godwin touches the ball, PSU is down 24-10, and it's the first time they've gone downfield since the first quarter?
The underlying theme here is the young man charged with leading this offense on the field. That, of course, is your former Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Christian Hackenberg. Two years ago, as a true freshman, Hackenberg looked every part the former 5-star quarterback prodigy, and future NFL first-round draft pick. Just 14 games later, he has become a shell of that player. No doubt the 40 something sacks, and at least that many big hits suffered in 2014, played a part. But after eight and a half minutes yesterday, any confidence he had was gone. By the time it was over, and Temple (TEMPLE!) had sacked him 10 times, he looked like most of the fan base.
For much of last season, I held off on calling for firings, ripping play calling, and many other things that became commonplace by mid-October. There were so many issues with last year's offensive personnel, it did not feel right to make such a drastic move. But, all that goodwill is gone now. It took about a half of football, and that goddamn jet sweep to Brandon Polk or DeAndre Thompkins for the ninth time, another five-yard out, or watching a consensus first-round NFL Draft pick losing the last ounce of confidence built up during the Pinstripe Bowl and an eight month off season to get me to this point, but here we are.
This staff can talk all they want about the limitations of their roster, and trying to do what they can with what they have, but enough is enough. There is too much talent on this roster, especially on the offensive side of the ball, to put up just 55 yards of offense in three and a half quarters. FCS teams do better than that with far less against FBS teams. By the third quarter yesterday, ESPN analyst Brock Huard was beside himself with what the Penn State offense was, uh, "doing."
At this point, we have five games that appear winnable, at least on paper, before a second half of the season that suddenly looks terrifying. Hell, these next five games look terrifying. I know nothing about Buffalo, but I do not know if we can beat Buffalo. Nevermind Rutgers, a pretty good San Diego State team, or Indiana. Even Illinois, with all their turmoil, blew out Kent State 52-3.
A certain coach around these parts was fond of saying "you're never as bad as you look in a loss, and never as good as you look in a win" (or something along those lines). I think most Penn State fans woke up this morning hoping that is the case, or suddenly an 8 or 9 loss season seems like a given.