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Easy Like Sunday Morning

I would make a reference to how the world is not ending due to the Lions’ 4-loss start but in 2020, that call may be premature.

#CHINA-NEW YEAR-SUNRISE (CN) Xinhua/Liu Debin via Getty Images

On a long and lonesome highway, west of Omaha, you can listen to the engine moaning out its one note song. Iowa, Iowa, Iowa. After answering questions following the game on Saturday, coach James Franklin will focus on the next match-up.

There is only one opponent on the schedule each week; a team cannot replay its previous games. For the remainder of the season it will be music to the ears of Penn State fans when their team collects a victory. It will be a very long time before they take any Big Ten win for granted.

There are people in Penn State circles wondering if James Franklin’s record is sufficient to retain his job or at least the full support of the fan base. Franklin has taken his team to the Big Ten Championship and won, then to the Rose Bowl. He followed that up with a Fiesta Bowl win and then a trip to the Citrus Bowl. Last year his team went to the Cotton Bowl and won. Letting a proven winner go has proven, time and again, to be a bad idea.

Nebraska joined the Big Ten less than a decade ago. After deciding that Bo Pelini’s 9.5 wins and 4 losses per season were not good enough through 6 seasons, 3 in the Big Ten, the Huskers have achieved a 9-4 record just one time, in 2016 with coach Mike Riley. That was the only winning season since they decided that Pelini was not coaching well enough, six years ago. Wunderkind Scott Frost’s third season started 1-2 with the win against the Lions. After two losing seasons to start, he could use a strong finish to 2020.

I think we could all benefit from a strong finish to this year, on and off the field. There have been plenty of headwinds for the Lions and yet in three of the four losses, the team showed that it had enough talent to win had it played its best. The losses stand, there’s no denying that, but the impact that it has on the fans should be neutered by the circumstances surrounding us all.

If James Franklin leaves the Lions it will be a bad thing for the program. Fans that entertain the idea should take some deep breaths and go to a quiet room and settle down. Just a month ago the same group of supporters thought that Franklin was poised to take his team to the NCAA Playoffs. If you trusted him a month ago, there’s no reason for that to change.

Stats & Storylines

We should feel fortunate to have had four weekends this fall to put other things out of our mind and enjoy a football game. Sure, the outcomes have not been what we hoped, but for a few hours, we were entertained. While watching the game during the fourth quarter we were all reminded of the intensity and enjoyment that can come from the competition alone. Winning is the best thing but it’s not the only reason we watch.

Sean Clifford handed Nebraska a 7-point gift when he simply dropped the ball instead of covering up while being sacked. Earlier he threw an interception that was returned 50 yards. Both plays, were they the only mishaps this year, could be excused. Unfortunately for Clifford, the plays such as those total in the double-digits.

Will Levis entered the game and the offense responded. Using a direct approach, quarterback and running back runs right up the middle, Kirk Ciarrocca loosened up the Nebraska defense. Then Levis began to throw and he made some nice plays.

Last week I asked the readers their solution to help get Penn State’s offense back on track. I suggested running the ball right up the gut, attempting to get the running backs a 200-yard day. Ciarrocca did just that once Levis entered the game. Sophomore Devyn Ford got 16 carries while two freshmen, Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee, combined for 12 carries. The trio finished with 165 yards, a few short of 200. Had they run the ball between the tackles from the start of the game they would have got the extra 35 yards and probably would have won the game.

Penn State had two chances to tie the game after trailing by three touchdowns. The advantage that was handed to the Huskers early in the game was too much to overcome. Outside of the turnover margin and the final two trips inside the 20 that came without points, the Lions dominated the game.

Brent Pry’s defense gave up some points but it was put at a disadvantage early. Three times in the first half his squad began its series with the ball already in Penn State territory, twice already within field goal range. That’s not including the fumble recovery for a touchdown in the first half as well. Considering the chaos, the defense played well enough to give the team a chance to win the game.

Jason Oweh led the team in tackles for the second-straight week from his defensive end position. Oweh was named a captain for the game and he has become a leader for the entire team. Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa each played solid games from their linebacker position. Brandon Smith reacted well to a tipped ball and then finished the play with a key interception that allowed Penn State to make its first attempt to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.

Quick Hits

  • There have been times this year that coach Franklin’s strategy, whether to go for it on 4th down or kick a field goal, or when to burn the clock, has been questioned. On Saturday he made several tough calls, kicking field goals when I’m sure the fan base wanted him to go for the touchdown. At the end of the game his team was in position to tie or take the lead. While this game didn’t go in the win column, Franklin coached a solid game.
  • The one mistake, in retrospect, seems to have been sticking with Sean Clifford as the starting quarterback. Clifford again looked slow on his reads and poised to commit a turnover at any moment. We speculated last week that there must not be too much behind Clifford or the coaches would have gone to Levis or beyond by now. Levis played much better than most fans thought he would and while the coaches will say they knew he had it in him, I am willing to bet that they were surprised as well. Levis may not be the next great PSU quarterback but right now he gives the team the best chance to win.
  • Considering the struggles that have occurred, the Penn State receivers have been solid through four games. Pat Freiermuth isn’t sneaking up on anyone and but Parker Washington is slowly becoming a very reliable target. While 6 of the 11 balls thrown Washington’s way fell to the ground, a few of the catches were tough plays that the team really needed.

KeAndre Lambert-Smith is also maturing and he made a critical catch on fourth down to continue a drive that brought the Lions to within one score of tying the game. While Brenton Strange did not make a catch, the freshman tight end was on the field for what seemed like half of the offensive plays. With Freiermuth set to leave after the season in all likelihood, it would be nice to get the young talent in the tight end room some work. While fellow freshman Zack Kuntz has yet to make an impact this year it would still be nice for the offense to get more Strange.