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It’s Gut Check Time For Penn State

After two heartbreaking losses, can the Nittany Lions right the ship?

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how James Franklin will get this done. I wrote about how the program is headed in the right direction, and how Penn State is just in the beginning stages of where it is going to be.

I still full-heartedly believe in what I said because it was about much more than just this season. But still, let’s call it like it is: the loss to Michigan State was unacceptable. This was not the Spartans teams of the early 2010s, or even the team it was last season — it was an average team that was depleted on both sides of the ball. To put it simply, it was a team Penn State should have beaten.

As has been talked about ad nauseam, Penn State has struggled closing out games. In their last 29 contests, the Nittany Lions have lost five times, and in all five of those games, they’ve led in the fourth quarter. Obviously, philosophical changes regarding Penn State’s play down the stretch need to be made. But to me, the bigger concern following this weekend isn’t closing out tight games. Instead, it’s why Penn State was in that situation on Saturday to begin with.

From the rhetoric we heard coming out of Ohio State, to having the bye week, to seeing Michigan State falter against a so-so Northwestern team, to playing in Beaver Stadium, to Penn State just flat-out being the better team — this had the makings of a semi-comfortable victory for the Nittany Lions. The type of game that could get them back on track and get their swagger back.

Instead, we saw a coaching staff that was unimaginative, and players that were uninspired. We saw a team that came out of halftime and just simply expected Michigan State to fold, and when it didn’t — well, we saw a team that was okay with playing passively, hoping the victory would just fall into its lap.

I know the the large majority of focus has been on Penn State’s lack of success once it went up 17-14, but how about everything before that? Yes, the offense was conservative in the final 10 minutes, but unlike what we saw against USC in the Rose Bowl or even Ohio State two weeks ago, this was an offense that had been conservative the entire game. There was no creativity from offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, and other than two big runs from Miles Sanders, the players did little to makeup for a vanilla offensive game plan.

I don’t have the answers for Penn State’s lackluster preparation and performance on Saturday. But I do know this: the team needs to figure it out because the next four weeks will not be kind if they don’t. Of course, everyone knows of the three-week stretch of Iowa, at Michigan, and Wisconsin, but it starts this weekend in Bloomington. Point blank, if the same Penn State team that we saw against Sparty shows up again this coming Saturday, it will be lucky to get past the Hoosiers.

Around this time last year, Jared ended a column by saying: “Buckle up those chinstraps, folks. It’s time to see what this team is made of.” Well, one year later, and albeit for very different reasons, it still holds true. This is a pivotal stretch for Penn State, and good or bad, we’ll learn a lot about these Nittany Lions in the next few weeks.