One game into the season, and Penn State might already need to readjust its expectations. If “readjusted expectations” isn’t the theme of 2020, I don’t know what is.
Yes, Penn State can still run the table, win the Big Ten, and qualify for the College Football Playoff. But the outlook heading into this week’s clash with Ohio State certainly doesn’t have the same electricity after Saturday’s season-opening loss at Indiana. And there are more questions facing the Nittany Lions than in any other time in recent memory.
Despite three turnovers and three missed field goals, and 10 penalties — all incredibly uncharacteristic for the Nittany Lions — there’s a reasonably easy argument that Penn State still should have won the game. We’ve all seen the various angles of Indiana quarterback Michael Penix’s last-play dive toward the end zone on the Hoosiers’ 2-point conversion.
Quick note: No matter your allegiance, that was a hell of a play by Penix, which deserves to be said.
After a brief hesitation, the officials ruled it good on the field, though replays showed convincing evidence that the ball was inches, millimeters, maybe a few layers of dental floss (it was that close) away from crossing the plane while touching the ground.
The Centre Daily Times’ star photographer, Abby Drey, captured the moment in her amazing photo that’s garnered a ton of attention online.
The scene was chaotic — even with a limited number of people in the stands — as the officials reviewed the play. In the end, the call stood, with Indiana tallying its first win against a Top-10 team since 1987.
Here’s what was going through star tight end Pat Freiermuth’s mind during the review:
“It stunk. Obviously leaving the game up to the ref’s hands, you never want that. We wanted to end the game on our terms,” he said. “I just thought about the whole game and how, to be honest, we were lucky to be in that point because of turning the ball over way too many times and the whole situation at the end of the game (Devyn Ford scoring instead of kneeling), but we can’t put the game into the ref’s hands. I was kind of by myself, I saw the replay. I’m going to leave my opinion out of it but you can’t let the end of the game go to the refs like that.”
If Penn State and Indiana play that game 10 times, chances are the Nittany Lions win seven or eight of the battles, at least by my estimation. And while Freiermuth said the team couldn’t use the excuse that they need time to adjust to a new offense, since the team’s had “100 meetings and 100 walk-throughs,” opening up against a conference opponent, on the road, during a pandemic, with a new offensive coordinator, ultimately provided too many obstacles.
“The first half, the two turnovers, we talk about winning the turnover battle all the time, and the two turnovers — the interception on the screen and the interception to Pat — were both completely on me, and I’ll man up and take that 100 percent,” Sean Clifford said. “It wasn’t the call, it wasn’t anything that they did. It was what I did, and I just can’t make that mistake.”
With Micah Parsons opting out and Journey Brown out indefinitely with an undisclosed medical condition, Penn State lost the best defensive player in the country and one of the top running backs in the nation. There’s still plenty of talent and experience, but without those two standouts, maybe the biggest lesson is that Penn State’s margin of error is less this year than previously expected.
Penn State’s usually won this type of game over the last few years, one where mistakes were made, though the Nittany Lions ultimately made enough winning plays. Think about the second half of the 2016 season, for example, including at Indiana, where the Nittany Lions trailed by 10 points in the second half.
For a moment, Saturday looked like it would end the same way. Was anybody really surprised when Clifford connected with Jahan Dotson for a 60-yard touchdown to take the lead with less than three minutes left?
No. That type of leadership and step-up mentality has been a hallmark for James Franklin and his teams at Penn State over the last four-plus seasons. Even in this case, a “winning play” helped lead to Indiana having a chance for the comeback. When asked about Devyn Ford not taking a knee and instead scoring with 1:42 left in the fourth quarter — which opened the door for the Hoosiers’ last-minute scoring drive — both Franklin and his players essentially said it doesn’t make sense to examine the loss with one play.
“It’s not one play that loses the game,” Clifford said. “It starts with me. I just have to be better and can’t turn the ball over.”
Players were understandably feeling dejected after the game during their Zoom press conferences. They’ve invested so much into this season, one that they weren’t even sure was going to happen. Now, it’s here, and the schedule rolls on, with Ohio State and College Game Day visiting Happy Valley this week.
Win Saturday, and expectations are readjusted again. And really, if anything in 2020 has become standard, it’s that what you think is going to happen most definitely won’t, or at least not in the way you envisioned.
“I’m just disappointed,” Freiermuth said. “I was just disappointed in how the whole offense performed today. I think that Coach Ciarrocca did a good job of putting us in the right positions and calling the right plays, but at the end of the day, you can call whatever play you want and do whatever you want offensively but if your players aren’t executing it the right way or doing the right things on the field, then you’re never going to be able to get anything. We were able to move the ball, but we shot ourselves in the foot way too many times. At this point, it’s just disappointing, but we have to move on.”