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SAUBER: After one devastating loss, Penn State football season is already on brink

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State's Shaka Toney leaves the field after Indiana defeated Penn State in overtime of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind.  (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Pat Freiermuth was in the middle of a response to a reporter's question when he seemed to lose his train of thought.

He paused, waiting for the right words to come to mind. Then they did.

"To be honest, I'm at a loss for words about this," he said.

Penn State's laundry list of mistakes against the Indiana Hoosiers was enough to leave any college athlete speechless, but the real cost of the mistakes may not be seen for another eight weeks.

Freiermuth and his Nittany Lion teammates lost their season opener Saturday evening — a 36-35 heartbreaker to Indiana on the road — and may have lost its most likely path to the College Football Playoff.

There were two potential paths to take Penn State head coach James Franklin and his team to uncharted territory. The Nittany Lions could take the route that would likely be easier — win every game except a close home matchup against Ohio State to prove they could hang with the nation's best while beating the rest — or they could take the harder path — go undefeated.

Through one week of their season, the first option is no longer available and Penn State has a daunting task ahead. It's a feat difficult enough that the Nittany Lions haven't accomplished it in four years and only once since 2012. They must defeat the Buckeyes.

Penn State head coach James Franklin watches during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 36-35 in overtime. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Plenty of blame to go around: The mistakes against Indiana put Penn State in this position with plenty of blame to go around.

Redshirt junior Sean Clifford threw two interceptions and struggled when Indiana pressured him. Backup quarterback Will Levis fumbled near the goal line early in the game. Junior kicker Jake Pinegar missed two field goals, including a 25-yarder just before the half. Sophomore running back Devyn Ford scored late in the game when he could have taken a knee and allowed his team to run out the clock. The Penn State defense played soft coverage, allowing Indiana to work down the field and tie the game.

And that's not even all of it

Those early mistakes can be attributed to a team that didn't look right when it had the ball.

"I didn't feel like we were comfortable on offense or in a rhythm in the first half," Franklin said. "Obviously a lot of that, you know is the quarterback, it's just the nature of playing football and the nature of offensive football. But I thought he did settle down as the game went on."

However, Clifford — looking sullen after the loss — said he didn't feel uncomfortable when he was in the game.

"I felt comfortable the whole game," he said. "It was just a lack of focus on one or two plays. Especially the two turnovers. I felt good, but at the same time you can't make those errors."

Regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable the quarterback was, the mistakes happened. And it doesn't really matter how Penn State got here. It's that they are here.

And they've got to find a way through this bleak moment if they want any chance to follow their new path to the playoff.

"I haven't really talked to anyone in the locker room yet," Freiermuth said. "This one hurts. Just like everyone else on the team, losing is the worst thing in the world, in my opinion. ... You have to learn from it and move on. You've just got to flush it. ... You have to let it hurt because it needs to hurt. Because hurting gets growth. Without growth this season is going to go down a way we don't want it to go.

"So we have to continue to grow, use it as fuel, and use it to get better."

Mistakes can't continue vs. Buckeyes: Freiermuth will be at the forefront of the matchup with the Buckeyes. He's Penn State's top option on offense and a crucial piece of their hopes for an upset. But even if the star tight end plays well — like he did Saturday — it won't matter if his teammates can't muster up the performance to match him.

Clifford can't make the kind of mistakes he did and the defense can't trail off like it did against Indiana because Ohio State will be ready for the Nittany Lions. Their season opener looked nothing like Penn State's. They showed off their elite offense and superior talent in a 52-17 win over Nebraska at home. They looked ready for the season to begin and ready to take a punch from a team that it had outclassed — the exact opposite of how Penn State looked.

Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, there is no real break until the matchup. Ohio State will travel to State College next week and play them in Beaver Stadium with the country watching in prime time. ESPN GameDay will be there, too.

Penn State has six days to prepare for the best team in the conference and one of the best teams in the country in what is now a must-win game.

This was a season filled with promise and the hope that Franklin and his team could cross the barrier into the elusive playoff. Just one game in, it's already teetering on the edge of disappointment.