COLLINS: After five games, it's still impossible to know where Penn State is headed
In many ways, the football coach Penn State fans are so frustrated by on game days is a lot like the one Penn State fans have spent the past three decades revering.
Give James Franklin a pair of khaki pants, roll up the cuffs, put him in a pair of black shoes and give him that trademark voice, and you'd swear you were listening to Joe Paterno. Ask him any question you want, but the answer is going to dance around the issues. Come up with any story angle you want, but Franklin isn't going to say anything particularly revealing unless he wants his players to read it. For two seasons, Bill O'Brien had a difficult time hiding his true feelings, whether the microphones and notebooks were in his face or not. But his predecessor was the king at doing that, and his successor is the prince.
More than one reporter tried to turn Saturday's post-game press conference into a referendum on where Penn State stands after five weeks of the 2015 season. A few asked specifically about the work of offensive coordinator John Donovan, who is becoming about as beloved by the blue and white pom pom wavers as Jay Paterno used to be. How could Penn State, they wondered, have a white-knuckle slugfest against an Army team that allowed 473 yards of total offense in fewer than 19 minutes to mighty Eastern Michigan a week earlier? How could a nearly four-touchdown favorite come so close to losing?
How can a head coach spin this victory — which felt very much like a loss in that room — in a way that doesn't label it a disappointment?
"I have no concern about point spreads. I couldn't tell you what they are," Franklin said Saturday. "I don't know a coach in the country that does. So I'm going to come in here every single week and be positive, even if it kills you guys and you want me to be negative. I love our players. I love our school. I love our colors. I love Penn State. I love Happy Valley. I love the community.
"Do we need to get better? Yes. But you guys can ask me every question in the book and try to get me to be negative. I'm not going to do it."
Penn State won, 20-14.
Battling injuries: It is 4-1 now. Just about a month after the Nittany Lions lost to Temple at Lincoln Financial Field and so many wondered whether they'd even have the steam to reach bowl eligibility, they're two wins away from the postseason. They did it Saturday in yet another soaking rainstorm with an available players list that looks like one you'd typically see in April competing in the Blue-White Game.
Both the Nittany Lions who scored touchdowns Saturday — running back Nick Scott and tight end Mike Gesicki — got in the end zone for the first time in their careers. Their three leading rushers combined for just two carries in that loss to Temple. Four of their five leading tacklers in the game Saturday are sophomores or younger.
This team has had to battle through a slew of injuries, namely to running backs Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch, who missed the game.
Fans treat the rain and the injuries like they're merely excuses for a coaching staff not getting the job done, but in reality, they're legitimate reasons for the fascinating issue that has evolved from day one until now, as Penn State prepares to get into the thick of Big Ten play next week:
Anybody who says they have a great feel about this team and the direction it is heading in the near-term is lying.
It's just impossible to tell right now.
"We're not where we need to be," Franklin said. "There's no doubt about that."
Young team: That's a concession on Franklin's part, but here's guessing he'd say it even if this team was playing a lot better. It's part of the sales pitch. The reality is, this is a team that makes a lot of youthful mistakes, which can be attributed to the fact that it's a young team. This is a team that has to use a lot of young players, which can be attributed to the fact that it is a team battling some injuries.
But it's patently unfair to criticize Donovan when he doesn't have his best weapons and otherwise ignore him when he does, because the results don't happen to fit the narrative. The great former Penn State defensive coordinator, Tom Bradley, used to offer the greatest truism ever uttered in sports: It's not the X's and the O's, he'd say, it's the Jimmys and the Joes. Penn State hasn't had the Jimmys and the Joes on the field long enough to know how good they can be on offense.
Take, for instance, the one play where even his biggest critics would concede Donovan made a great play call Saturday.
It's third-and-16. Penn State has the ball on its own 16, and Army has just scored the touchdown that pulled it to within six points. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg takes the snap and rolls a step or two to his right, long enough for Scott to throw a block and turn around. Two rushers pass Scott, and Hackenberg deftly throws the ball over their heads. Scott catches it, turns around, and there's nothing but green grass and blockers in front of him.
He darts upfield, linemen get in front of him and clear out some defenders. The receivers are blocking, too. Scott essentially has one man standing between himself and the end zone, and it's Army cornerback Chris Carnegie.
Now, this is not taking anything away from Scott. He picked up 22 yards on third-and-16. That kept the chains moving, and at that point in the game, that was important for Penn State. But he didn't beat Carnegie. It's very easy to argue that Barkley — a player who broke six tackles and shimmied past another on the way to a touchdown on a very similar pass play in the first half against San Diego State a week earlier — would have. Maybe, Lynch would have, too.
"I think that does definitely come with experience," Scott said. "It's something I should have taken advantage of. Looking at the film, that's something we're going to pay a lot of attention to, because I think I could have done a little bit more in some places."
Penn State's offense has looked so much better with one of those two runners on the field, and that's only natural. Barkley is the most physically gifted back on the team, and Lynch is the most experienced. Scott and Mark Allen and Jonathan Thomas are learning, and Penn State is doing what it has to in order to secure wins while they are learning.
That should be enough for now. The time for debating if what this coaching staff is doing is working is for another day. It's not for a game against Army, when many of your best playmakers are watching from the sidelines.