Penn State had eight months to prepare for this game.
That's the most damning thing, really. Not that the offensive line gave up ten sacks, not that the entire unit managed less than a yard per play for the last three quarters, not that Christian Hackenberg had another sub-.500 completion rate, more-interceptions-than-touchdowns performance. Not that so many purportedly important players were so conspicuously absent. Not that no less of a defensive mind than Bob Shoop could not even cobble together an inspiring gameplan with a group that lost one of its most irreplaceable pieces. Not that with Nyeem Wartman-White's injury proving season ending, this is probably a fair template for the Nittany Lions' defense moving forward.
No, the takeaway here is that James Franklin and John Donovan had eight full months--for us, eight grueling, football-less months, fraught with building tension and anticipation and boiling over until at least 40,000 of us packed into a "road" stadium--and yet couldn't have looked more feckless and incompetent and caught off guard by even the most basic of Matt Rhule's adjustments. Penn State started strong and finished abominably, and that, not the failure of any number of players, is the strongest indictment on a coaching staff that deserves a maelstrom of criticism.
Here's what I wrote eight months ago, about an hour after Penn State clinched a Pinstripe Bowl victory:
It is an obvious cliche to say that a bowl game is a springboard to the next season, but it's hard to see this game as anything but: Penn State loses so little and returns so much that time, and nothing else, can help this team blossom, help the coaching staff continue to grow alongside it. This game showcased so much that we've been waiting so long to see that it's not worth it to bother wallowing in the idea that this game doesn't matter. No, a Pinstripe Bowl championship isn't, on its own, worth a lick. But for this team, every game mattered, and for next year's team, we can hope and pray that this game, with its underclassmen heroes and its promise of a brighter future, mattered more than any other.
Flash forward to today, and it's hard to remember just how Penn State succeeded, or that they were even capable, at some distant point in our memory, of doing anything but torturing a fanbase that was so convinced that the Nittany Lions were back, that a soft schedule would be a springboard of its own to a 10-win season and brighter things on the horizon, especially in James Franklin's recruiting classes.
Today's performance instead begged only the following question: How in the hell did this coaching staff win 9 games--repeatedly!--at Vanderbilt? How did they keep their quarterbacks upright against the likes of Florida and Georgia and Alabama? Isn't the reality that James Franklin and John Donovan were able to thrive, with a vastly less talented roster, proof enough that the SEC isn't the best conference in college football? If Temple--two years removed from its own 2-win season--could so easily manhandle a program that has rightly considered itself the big brother in the state of Pennsylvania, how the hell could the underdog Commodores stand a chance?
This much is no longer debatable: John Donovan stands between Penn State and success, both in the short and long terms. Even if this is a lost year, Donovan must be fired before he poisons the well, before would-be future Lions take a message from the former ones and realize that this isn't a ship-in its current trajectory-worth getting on.
That's the most embarrassing thing about this loss. It's usually the fans who are derided for not seeing the forest for the trees, for being too critical of a program, of coaches, of players, of decisions made and not made. To see so many former Nittany Lions blasting John Donovan--and Franklin too--is the kind of mutiny we expect from lesser programs. For all that Penn State football has experienced and come through in the past four years--for the tight, cohesive family that seemed to emerge from the depth of the sanctions to turn on itself signals in itself another sea change. The sanctions are over. There are no more moral victories. There are no more excuses. And it's not surprising to see Penn Stater turn on Penn Stater without the constant theme of persevering together pervading through our collective consciousnesses.
But why were they criticizing? Perhaps because Donovan used his very different wide receivers almost interchangeably, and failed to take advantage of any of their skillsets. Perhaps because Kyle Carter barely played, and the tight ends--the heart and soul of the offense under Bill O'Brien--were targeted once. Perhaps because Donovan has in his playbook all of three distinct running plays: an inside trap, an inside trap following a fly sweep fake, and a fly sweep. Each saw diminishing returns once Temple caught up to speed; none was shelved or substituted for a play requiring a modicum of creativity. Donovan must have diagramed the first drive--with its quick passes and up-tempo speed, it worked well to hide the deficiencies that would make themselves so conspicuous over the following 55 minutes. And yet, a coach so easily derided for over reliance on a screen-passing game failed to stick with what was working. Temple made the necessary adjustments--somehow, Donovan decided to go to an even less effective gameplan. Temple is a solid football team. Temple has a fine defense. John Donovan made them look like the '85 Bears. The Owls are good. They are not this good.
Of course, not all of the blame can be laid directly on Donovan. Somehow, an offensive line that returned four starters (and six players with significant 2014 experience) was markedly worse than a unit that we had rightly considered the worst in Penn State history. It kills me to say this, but when John Donovan is shown the door, Herb Hand must follow right behind him. Hand is an incredible person with an inspiring personal history and a personality that would make firing the position coach of arguably the worst position grouping in the entire country as hard as firing your own brother. But Herb Hand isn't paid to tweet rap lyrics and compete on cooking shows, he's paid to get the most out of a group of exceptionally large college students, and when five of our boys can't block two of Temple's--well, that says it all.
Ricky Rahne can join those two, though it's hard to gauge whether or not he's to blame. It's hard to imagine even the best quarterback thriving behind Herb Hand's offensive line, and in John Donovan's system, much less one so ill-suited for John Donovan's amateurish pop-gun playbook. It makes you wonder why Hackenberg had the faith to remain while the door was wide open for him to seek opportunities that would put him in the best position to shine and display his many talents for the next level. All he can do at Penn State is get hurt or unimpress and either way, he's costing himself millions of dollars. Hackenberg should be benched--not because Trace McSorley could do any better, but for Hack's own health and earning potential. But with Franklin deciding to leave Hackenberg in late in the fourth uarter with the game well out of hand, just to continue to take a pounding and to risk one of those hits leaving serious damage says enough about where the coaching staff prioritizes his future.
Much of the criticism today is being heaped on James Franklin--for a man so full of platitudes and winning charm to have to face a press corps and a fanbase after a game like that and come out with no real answers hints that the nickname bestowed upon Franklin by opposing fans isn't an unfair one. But Franklin can only go as far as his assistants take him.
Penn State did a very unlikely, but entirely necessary, thing when it shelled out more than a million dollars to keep Bob Shoop here. It would be just as surprising, but just as absolutely essential to completely overhaul the offensive coaching staff. If this type of mind-numbingly awful performance continues James Franklin must be made to choose between two options: loyalty or his job.
Something has to change.