After lamenting the marine layer of “noise” surrounding his once second-ranked program, Penn State coach James Franklin swept the sky to land on the core of his frustration.
“We’re going to become more of a hard-nosed team up front on both sides of the ball,” Franklin said after his team’s 27-24 loss to Michigan State on Saturday. “We’re going to be more physical up front. We’re not right now. We’re too finesse.”
That’s it. That’s the station from which Penn State leaves for the concluding stretch of a 2017 season that suddenly seems disappointing, though that view might be a product of that “noise” as well.
The Lions have three games remaining against a friendly schedule (Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland) that could lift them to a 10-2 finish and a New Year’s Six bowl game.
By itself, that’s a phenomenal season. In the context of being the 2016 Big Ten champion and the nation’s No. 2 team just 10 days ago, it looks like a spiral.
Thing is, winning Big Ten road games is difficult (ask Ohio State about its 31-point loss at Iowa on Saturday). Winning true road games against ranked teams is even more difficult; Franklin is 0-5 in that attempt at Penn State.
In the past two weeks, Penn State has lost road games to teams with assertive run defenses, cocooned pass protection and quarterbacks who played beyond reason.
The Lions led one of those games for 58 minutes before falling to a quarterback who completed 16 consecutive passes (and then threw four interceptions against Iowa). They lost the other — derailed by rain and a 3-hour, 22-minute weather delay — on a last-second, 34-yard field goal by a kicker who missed a 32-yarder in the fourth quarter of a triple-overtime loss to Northwestern the week prior.
Two games, two losses by a combined four points. Sports are fickle. Penn State spun magic last season. The past two weeks, that magic has withered at the line of scrimmage.
Before Michigan State kicker Matt Coghlin made the winning field goal Saturday, his coach gave him a prayer card. That card, coach Mark Dantonio said, included a phrase from Psalm 91: “You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion…”
Offensive line an ongoing problem: Which brings us back to Franklin’s “finesse” problem. Penn State’s offensive-line concerns — its physicality, health, depth, cohesion and just plain orneriness — have been ongoing through Franklin’s four seasons. Offensive line is the position group that has taken the longest to rebuild through recruiting following the NCAA sanctions.
Penn State schemed around it well enough last year, with coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense getting its playmakers downfield and into favorable situations, leading to space for Saquon Barkley. Opposing defenses are hitting that pitch this year, leaving Barkley to run into walls or block patiently in protection.
Franklin noted his line’s weaknesses earlier this season, suggesting it had to play with more of a “nasty streak.” The problem, the coach said Saturday, isn’t Barkley.
“Saquon didn’t struggle today,” Franklin said of his back, who rushed for 63 yards on 14 carries. “Our offense struggled at times today. We haven’t been running the ball consistently this year. It’s not a Saquon issue. It’s a team issue.”
Issue extends to defense: That issue has extended to the defense, which hasn’t been able to handle the physical line play of Ohio State and Michigan State. Penn State lost nearly half its sack production from 2016 to graduation and the NFL draft, then lost two starting defensive ends (Torrence Brown and Ryan Buchholz) this season to injuries.
The past two weeks, it also has played better offensive fronts. Against them, the Lions haven’t produced the backfield splash plays. Penn State made a combined four sacks against Ohio State and Michigan State quarterbacks who completed 33 passes each.
“That showed up the last couple weeks,” Franklin said. “They’re getting to us, and getting pressure on our quarterback. We’re not. We rush four, we’re not getting there. We rush five, we’re not getting there. We rush six, we’re not getting there. We’re not getting to the quarterback consistently enough.”
Ohio State and Michigan State won the lines of scrimmage against Penn State. As a result, they won the games.
In several ways, Penn State is better than its 2016 championship counterpart. Two road losses by four points don’t disprove that. Still, the Lions have a foundation to keep building. That continues in the dirt.