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43 Random Thoughts as Penn State Falls to Michigan

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Patience as a virtue that begins to wear thin...

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

1. I’m a patient man.

2. I’m self-aware enough to recognize that I have far more patience with players, coaches, and teams than the average sports fan. Anyone who has visited this website for any length of time over the past 10 years that I’ve been here is, I’m sure, well aware of this.

3. I don’t leap to conclusions and don’t regularly make it a practice to demand firings or resignations or permanent benchings.

4. I believe in allowing coaches and players (and programs, for that matter) time to get themselves back on the right track, because downswings in performance are often circumstantial and not necessarily permanent. This isn’t a video game.

5. I believe there is value in continuity and that change year after year after year have a detrimental effect on player performance, despite the demonstrated skill and resume of a new hire.

6. These are the things I value in a college football program because I have seen them play out that way. Penn State had the same head football coach for four decades, and throughout that time, he had distinct periods of overwhelming and unparalleled greatness that were eventually followed by collapse. Between 1966 and 1979, Joe Paterno won 121 games – he won 10 or more games 8 times and had 3 undefeated seasons. During those 13 seasons, he also had years where he went 5-5, 9-3, 7-5, and 8-4.

7. The 1980s are often considered Penn State’s glory days. Penn State won two consensus national championships and won 10 or more games on 5 occasions. But stretches of that decade were less impressive – in the two years following the 1982 title, the Nittany Lions went 8-4-1 and 6-5. In the four seasons after the 1986 title, the Nittany Lions went 8-4, 5-6, 8-3-1, and 9-3. After an 11-win renaissance campaign, in 1992, Penn State regressed, going 7-5 and losing the Blockbuster Bowl.

8. My time at Penn State was remarkably disjointed – a 2002 season that was punctuated by a Larry Johnson, Jr. Heisman campaign, followed by the most disastrous two season stretch in program history – 3-9 in 2003 and 4-7 in 2004. Of course, Penn State won the Big Ten and the Orange Bowl in 2005.

9. This is not a history lesson for history’s sake. Joe Paterno was an outstanding football coach – the best of his era and one of the best of any era. He was an innovative on-field schemer and a tireless and charming recruiter with a keen eye for talent. Until the latter half of his career, he played the media game better than basically anyone.

10. But there are other reasons for the program’s success during the last quarter of Paterno’s career. He had built substantial equity with the university, and that loyalty was rewarded with trust. His final coaching staffs were not filled with stars; in fact, many were Penn State lifers. The value in Penn State and being a Penn Stater was consistency – players who went to Penn State knew what they were getting and they valued it.

11. That consistency runs in stark contrast to what we have seen throughout the last decade of college football, where coaches are fired after just 21 games or just 21 months removed from a national championship. Where high-level expectations lead to consistent changes at the top, with nothing to show for it in the win column.

12. The sustained success of college football’s best programs and the 24/7/365 nature of college football social media and podcasts has only elevated short-term interest over consistency. Alabama hasn’t had a “down” year since 2007. Ohio State hasn’t had a down year since 2011. This is Clemson’s first down year since 2010. Oklahoma’s last down year was 2014.

13. James Franklin’s stated desire is to bring Penn State to that level.

14. For this program, with this history, this fan base, that remains the right goal. We’ve seen proof of concept – 2016 through 2019 is the best stretch of Penn State football since the 1970s. I see that, then look at last year’s weird COVID year and this year’s hot start. Patience is rewarded, particularly among college football fans who, these days, are legendarily impatient.

15. So I remain patient.

16. But that doesn’t mean I am happy.

17. Collectively, we have spent an awful lot of time since the Iowa game talking about “facilities” and “investment.” And I agree, facilities and investment are critical to taking this program from “good to great to elite.” I also agree that Penn State is deeply and inextricably embedded in the college football arms race already, and standing on principle by avoiding additional investment makes zero sense whatsoever.

18. But right now, worrying about facilities is like Butch and Sundance peering over the edge of a cliff to the boulder-filled rapids 300 feet below, thinking you better not jump ‘cause there’s a chance you might drown.

19. It’s the fall that’s gonna kill you.

20. Facilities and investment didn’t make Penn State less ready for the Illini’s jumbo set that let them give up 200 yards to one running back and nearly 150 to another.

21. Facilities and investment did not leave Penn State without a competent reserve quarterback after Sean Clifford got hurt in the Iowa game.

22. And facilities and investment didn’t call a fake field goal from the two-yard line against Michigan.

23. The fake field goal bothers me more than just about anything else from this game. The tackling failures, the blown coverage at the end of the game, the egregious drops and the failure of the offense to give Clifford consistent help – that’s all frustrating. But that’s execution and this is college football. Execution is often lacking. It’s part of the sport’s bizarre charm.

24. But that fake field goal in the first quarter made no sense at the time and the several series that followed only reinforce how harmful that call really was.

25. First, as a note, Penn State was successful running the ball on Saturday. Not excellent or great or anywhere near what you’d like them to be, but successful. They had also driven down field on both drives capably. The ball was on the two-yard line. If you want to go for it there (which was exactly the right call), put your offense on the field and call a play that can get you two yards.

26. Odds are that Penn State scores. At that point, it’d be 10-0 in the first quarter and momentum is entirely on your side. The exceptional defense feeds off an animated crowd and likely gets another stop, which gives you the chance to exert maximum pressure early and force a rushing-heavy offense to throw the ball in order to try to catch up.

27. But let’s say Penn State gets stoned. That could very well happen. And if it did, the ball remains on the two-yard line.

28. But Penn State called a fake field goal. That play, which involves two players not regularly used on offense, let alone pressure situations, increases the risk of something going dramatically wrong.

29. And, to be clear, several things went dramatically wrong.

30. The pass to Jordan Stout was low. The defense, already having been faked out once on fourth down, was ready. And Stout, who does not regularly carry the ball, fumbled. The play lost 18 yards.

31. Those 18 yards are critical. Penn State’s defense is, as noted, exceptional. They forced a 3-and-out, with Michigan punting from its own 33.

32. The problem, though, is that the punt went 65 yards and was downed at the Penn State 2.

33. So instead of Michigan facing a talented Penn State defense with its back against the wall, that 18-yard loss on the fake field goal turned into the inverse. And it turned Penn State’s field position on its head until Michigan scored its only touchdown of the first half.

34. You can’t say definitively that call and its execution caused this past week’s loss to Michigan. But it was certainly a contributing factor that had lasting effects through the course of the next 3 drives.

35. The offensive line was better in spots this week, getting a strong push on rushing downs against a very good Michigan front 7 and putting Keyvone Lee in position to churn positive yards. That’s real progress and we should all be happy about that.

36. Unfortunately, that progress was neutralized by virtually non-existent blocking on the edge. Michigan’s defensive ends are very good. They are not as good as they were made to look this week by a pair of tackles that were severely outclassed.

37. At the end of the day, that’s what this game came down to. A momentum stopping early fourth down call, a failure to protect Penn State’s most critical offensive player, and a late defensive breakdown.

38. There’s no shame in losing to Michigan. That’s a good team and a good program, and these two squads regularly split games with each other. It’s the manner in which this one was lost that is most frustrating.

39. That’s the single thread running through nearly every loss this year. Each of the 4 has been winnable. Each of the 4 arguably should have been won, but for a failure at one particular spot. It’s just a different spot every time.

40. Like I said, I’m patient. I stuck around through two brutal slogs in the early 00s and the sanction years. Even Joe Paterno in his prime went 5-6.

41. Getting this ship righted now, though, would make me much more confident.

42. On to Rutgers.

43. We are…