With eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of Penn State’s White Out game clash with Ohio State on September 29, Miles Sanders scored a 1-yard touchdown run. This gave Penn State a 26-14 lead over the Buckeyes as a Beaver Stadium record crowd of 110,889 joined in unison to sing its best rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”
As the Beaver Stadium faithful sang their lungs out, Nittany Lion fans were sky high. Their team was eight minutes away from knocking off the No. 4 ranked Buckeyes in a win that would improve the team to 5-0, put them firmly in the top five, and put them in the driver’s seat to make both the Big Ten Championship game as well as the College Football Playoff.
Unfortunately, since Rafael Checa’s ensuing kickoff that went for touch back, nothing has gone right for the Nittany Lions.
Poor tackling, the inability of the offense to pick up an additional first down on their penultimate drive, and poor play calling on their final drive led to the Nittany Lions falling to the Buckeyes 27-26. Following a bye week, the team played uninspired offensive football, which included a terrible game plan from Ricky Rahne, against an average Michigan State team in a heartbreaking 21-17 loss.
As Felton Davis beat Amani Oruwariye in coverage and crossed the goal line to give the Spartans a lead over the Nittany Lion with just 19 seconds left, Penn State’s hopes of winning the Big Ten or reaching the College Football Playoff faded to dust. Davis’ touchdown, however, did not diminish the importance of the team’s remaining contests.
Entering the 2018 season, few football programs in the FBS had as much momentum as Penn State. James Franklin and the Nittany Lions were coming off consecutive 11-win seasons that included a Big Ten Championship, a Rose Bowl trip, and a Fiesta Bowl victory. This success on the field had led to great success on the recruiting trail, too. The Nittany Lions signed their best class in decades with the 2018 recruiting cycle, and are on their way to inking another top 10 class in the 2019 cycle.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football. Success on the recruiting trail is the difference between successful and unsuccessful football programs, and a big part of recruiting is program perception. It is due to program perception that the next three games are vital for the Nittany Lions.
After the 5-2 Nittany Lions play three consecutive ranked teams in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, they will play two of the Big Ten’s worst programs in Rutgers and Maryland. No matter how poorly this team is playing, you can pencil them in for victories over the Scarlet Knights and Terrapins.
But these next three Saturdays are what will tell the story of the 2018 Nittany Lions, and could influence the story of future teams. It will not be easy, but Penn State needs to find a way to win at least two of its next three games.
The 2020 recruiting cycle is loaded in Penn State’s recruiting region. In all honesty, the Nittany Lions inking a top three class in the country is a real possibility for the 2020 cycle. That said, finishing the 2018 season at 8-4 or 7-5 could have a massive negative impact on recruiting momentum for the Nittany Lions.
If Penn State finishes this season with 4+ losses, Franklin may end up somewhere he spent far too much time during his early years in Happy Valley - on the defensive on the recruiting trail. Opposing coaches will be lining up to tell recruits that Franklin’s success was tied directly to two people - Joe Moorhead and Saquon Barkley.
After an uninspiring win over Indiana last weekend, Franklin is just 19-14 at Penn State without Moorhead. Do I think Franklin is incapable of winning without Moorhead? Absolutely not. Regardless of how the rest of 2018 shakes out, I fully expect Penn State to be one of the two or three best teams in the Big Ten in 2019 with how much talent returns. However, high school kids are just that, kids, and if they hear something enough times, they are likely to believe it.
Even if Penn State fails to sign a top five recruiting class in the 2020 cycle, it will still net a strong recruiting class that will find itself among the 15 best in the country. That’s just what Franklin does. That said, signing a top 5-10 class and signing a top 15-20 class is the difference between being great and elite. It is the difference between having to rebuild and being able to reload. It is the difference between being Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, and Ohio State and having an opportunity to reach the College Football Playoff every season, and being in the ‘other’ group with everyone else.
Many people outside of Happy Valley have been waiting for the shoe to drop for Franklin and the Nittany Lions. If Penn State finishes 2018 at 8-4 or worse, said shoe will be dropping in the eyes of many. Those who believe the Nittany Lions are an average football program without Moorhead and Barkley will feel they have been proven correct. It is now up to this group of Nittany Lions to use the next three weeks to prove those people wrong.
It is important for Franklin to prove he can win without his superstar offensive coordinator or running back. I firmly believe that Franklin will prove this, but the sooner that happens, the better for the overall health of the Penn State football program moving forward.