Visibly frustrated, noticeably tired of the scrutiny and unaccustomed to the type of run Penn State has endured the last month and a half, Cam Brown took in the question.
His giant hands darted, palms facing upward. He subtly shook his head in disbelief as those hands slapped back toward his knees.
What do you have to do, against teams like this, in places like this — against the heavyweights of the Big Ten — to avoid a feeling like this? To avoid a narrow defeat or, in this case, a convincing one, 42-7 at the Big House? To become the powerhouse team, year in and year out, the Nittany Lions expect to be?
“Play better,” he shot back. “What else do you guys want me to say?”
In the end, everything else written after Penn State’s latest blowout loss at Michigan Stadium on Saturday is just hyperbole. Everything else is just a stinking pile of reasons and excuses and hyperbole. We can discuss the effectiveness of the coaching staff, the play of the offensive line, the use of the young receivers, the underwhelming performances of the veteran receivers, the youth of the defense and the difficulty of the schedule. But as they suffered their third loss of the season to a Big Ten East Division foe, the failures come down to exactly what Brown says they do.
Penn State, in 2018, just hasn’t played very well.
The Nittany Lions have been sloppy, week in and week out, even when they’ve won convincingly. They’ve had chances to be special, and they’ve squandered them.
You know what every team that has a chance to be special and consistently whiffs on their chances to reach that plateau has in common? That team was never really special to begin with.
That is not a knock on the 2018 Nittany Lions, at all.
PSU never a real playoff contender: Now, even though this is hardly the time any of them want to hear it — after No. 5 Michigan beat them up in every facet of their much-ballyhooed matchup Saturday, outgaining the Nittany Lions 403 yards to 186 and sacking their quarterbacks five times — it’s time for some real talk with Penn State fans.
This team was a College Football Playoff contender in record only after the first four weeks of the season. The Lions beat Appalachian State in overtime despite making a ton of mistakes that nearly cost them the game. They beat Pittsburgh, badly, despite making many of those same mistakes in the first half of that game. They beat Kent State, again badly, again in spite of dropped passes and penalties that took touchdowns off the board and an overall lack of sharpness to their play. They beat Illinois convincingly, despite a leaky run defense and some turnovers and some poor decisions.
They had the nation’s No. 1 ranked scoring offense at that point, and a defense many worried about. Since, they’ve topped 24 points just once and were nearly shut out for the first time in 17 years Saturday.
Offense not holding up its end: How did this mighty offense fall off the ledge so quickly? A change in play-calling? A sizable drop in the quality of play from quarterback Trace McSorley and his receivers? Running back Miles Sanders got drastically slower?
“We’ve played really good teams,” head coach James Franklin said. “We’ve got to continue improving, but we’ve been playing some really good teams. That’s the No. 1 defense in the country that we played today, and they played like it. And, we didn’t.”
There’s a reason Penn State’s defense is playing better — good enough to win the first two games the Nittany Lions lost, in Franklin’s opinion — and the offense isn’t. It’s because the defense’s young players are getting better the more they play, and the offense’s veteran players aren’t.
Offense had lots of question marks: In absolute fairness, it had to have been easy to hope Penn State would make a run this season. They had a senior quarterback who had Heisman hopes and is one of the best signal callers in school history, maybe the best. They had an experienced offensive line vowing this year would be different. They had a top-rated running back recruit taking over in the backfield, and a few receivers with a ton of potential back on the outside.
But the bottom line is, outside of McSorley, there were a lot of question marks. Every year seems to be the year the offensive line plans to break out. As good as Sanders is, nobody could replace what Saquon Barkley could do. Those receivers were standing in for DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki and Saeed Blacknall, three players who are contributing in the NFL now.
Growing pains to be expected: In short, it was fair to expect growing pains, frustrating as those growing pains were in those crushing nip-and-tuck defeats against the Buckeyes and Spartans.
What Michigan showed Penn State this time is it has a long way to go to get where it wants to be. It’s a lesson these same Wolverines taught them in 2016, and they responded to it.
You can’t fumble an exchange at midfield after you’ve blocked a field goal. You can’t miss a wide open receiver for an easy touchdown when you get a chance to cut a lead in half early in the game. You cant continually get set back by penalties, and this team seems good for an offside penalty that turns a third-and-7 into a third-and-2 every week. You can’t survive those mistakes and beat the best team in the conference, which Michigan certainly showed itself to be Saturday.
“We have to come back and watch the film (today). And that’s going to hurt. It’s going to suck,” McSorley said. “But we’re going to have to watch it, and we’re going to have to be critical of ourselves.”
Dose of honesty needed: They’ll find the difference between a team that’s where it wants to be, and a team that wants to get there, and as painful as it is for this team and its fans to accept, Penn State is the latter again. Such is life in college football. But getting better starts now, and it starts with what this team needs more than anything right now. A dose of that honesty.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.