PSU's future hinges on games vs. Minnesota, Maryland

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • Penn State is coming off a 49-10 pounding at the hands of Michigan.
  • The Nittany Lions play host to Minnesota and Maryland over next two weeks.
  • Both Minnesota and Maryland are 3-0 on the season.

Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight began laughing as his coaches called the same play "like eight times in a row" against Penn State on Saturday night. Sensing desperation, the Wolverines ran basically one play — "We would just flip it back and forth," Speight said — on an effortless, 80-yard scoring drive to take a 35-3 lead.

"I can imagine that would suck to go through that every single play," Speight said of Penn State's defense, "having someone just run you over."

That stretch of Michigan's 49-10 victory brought to mind an interview Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour gave to local reporters in State College this summer. Barbour cheered coach James Franklin and his staff's performance in guiding their players' academic records, helping to keep them out of police reports and pressing their pursuit of community service.

Penn State head coach James Franklin, center, looks up at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter during Saturday's 49-10 loss at Michigan.

Barbour added that Penn State's on-field performance also has been "pretty darn good" the past two seasons, all things considered. Not quite championship level, but improving.

However …

"We're going to lose football games," Barbour said. "OK, I prefer not to, but nobody should blow us out. Nobody."

Barbour said that in July, before Penn State's linebacker situation collapsed, before Penn State knew just how hog-tied it would be against the nation's fourth-ranked team. As joyless as the game was — "They're physically hurting and emotionally hurting," Franklin said afterward — its result wasn't terribly unexpected. Still, the message lingers.

Penn State isn't competing with Michigan right now — kind of like Penn State was out of Michigan's reach from 2008-10. And the Wolverines' 2010 sanctions (probation and lost practice time) didn't coat the back of a spoon compared to Penn State's two years later.

It matters that Michigan has started 20 fourth- or fifth-year seniors this season, has multiple all-America candidates on offense and defense and will send a busload of players to next year's Senior Bowl and NFL combine.

It also matters that the group knows how to react when it smells blood. As Speight said, his linemen got excited as he kept calling the same play in the second half. "It gets demoralizing for a defense," he said.

But Barbour said this summer that, like fans, she expects progress. She measures that in "absolutely wins and losses" but also in offensive improvement and recruiting.

"James Franklin wants to win a national championship, and I believe we are going to have an opportunity to do that," Barbour said in July. "Is it going to be this year? No, probably not. … But that's not the expectation this year. The expectation is, are we building to that, are we showing progress, are we making progress toward being a Big Ten and ultimately national-championship contender?"

Progress needed over next two weeks: Penn State has a chance — perhaps even a need — to show progress toward that over the next two weeks. The Lions host Minnesota and Maryland, two teams against which Penn State's deficiencies won't be nearly as magnified.

Minnesota (3-0) has a comeback win over Oregon State but also the nation's 95th-ranked strength of schedule. Maryland (3-0) has beat up on teams with a combined two wins and is ranked 118th in schedule strength.

Both teams can run the ball — Minnesota's Rodney Smith averages 99 yards per game — which will be an asset against Penn State's injured defense. But Minnesota, in particular, is susceptible defensively, giving the Lions a chance to regain their offensive footing.

Following Saturday's game, Franklin noted the visible gap between top-five teams (such as Michigan) and those ranked 15-25. "That's what we're trying to do," he said.

Penn State has a distance to get there, coupling its own limitations with the demands of the Big Ten East, where Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer have separated themselves this season. The obstructions will linger as long as they remain.

But Franklin and his staff can't lapse in games like those upcoming at Beaver Stadium. That's where Penn State will show the progress to which Barbour alluded. That's where it needs to show progress.

"It's about how we play the game," Barbour said in July. "It's about offensive improvement, it's about maintaining some of the momentum that we've had defensively, it's about continuing to recruit high-quality student-athletes, which I think we've done very well.

"It's about maintaining academic performance, about having our football student-athletes be great student-athletes in the community. I came here because all of those things are important to Penn State. Not just one of them."