JENSEN: Penn State has to start winning games to win over recruits

The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Maryland defensive back Tarheeb Still (12) battles Penn State wide receiver Parker Washington (3) for an incomplete pass in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Recruiting doesn't stop during a pandemic.

That means the rest of this season is a precarious time for the winless Penn State football program. At 0-3, the Nittany Lions’ 2020 season has already fallen way too far down the mountain for it to be considered a success.

We can talk about playing for pride and any other movie cliché you want to come up with. But the reality if this: Penn State is playing for its future.

James Franklin has heard that before. It was easy to write before the 2016 Temple-Penn State game that Franklin simply had to win it, that losing to Temple two years in a row would have caused the Nittany Lions' fan base to be looking for the next man in charge, with Temple's coach at the time a favorite candidate.

Ancient history, except that 2016 Penn State group, coming off a loss to Pittsburgh, beat Temple, and went on to beat Ohio State and eventually play in one of the greatest Rose Bowls in history. (A loss, but still.) The Nittany Lions also beat Maryland at home by 24 points, and won by two touchdowns at Indiana. Neither of those scores were terribly noteworthy at the time.

And here were are, no dreams of a Rose Bowl left, a salvage operation the best case.

"Is Penn State bad all of a sudden?" a friend asked Saturday. "Thought they had become a top-tier program again. Or at least close to it."

"Their defensive demon opted out," I texted back about the team ranked eighth in the Associated Press poll the week before their season opener. "Two running back studs got hurt. ... Life is fragile."

Losing-by-35-7-after-33-minutes-at-home-to-Maryland fragile? Nope, my generic alibi didn't hold under scrutiny in an eventual 35-19 loss.

The Big Ten Network fouled up Saturday, not switching the East Coast feed to the Penn State game for the first half, and that might have seemed like an omen, or act of mercy for Nits fans. That score, 35-7, told the story on its own, though. Its message blares in neon: The Nits stink. An 0-3 start; only five regular-season games left; trips to Nebraska, Michigan, and Rutgers left to show class of 2023 recruits they are a top-tier program still, or at least close to it.

You can't blame Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons for opting out, with his personal future so bright. But will the next Micah Parsons sign on? Plenty rides on the rest of 2020.

The 2021 Penn State recruiting class is already being called a disappointment in many circles. The Nittany Lions' class is ranked 31st in the nation and eighth in the Big Ten by 247Sports, behind Maryland and just ahead of Rutgers.

Penn State also just lost an in-state stud, Derrick Davis from the Pittsburgh area, to Louisiana State, with Ohio State in the mix, too. I'd still argue that being in that company is important. Lose to Rutgers and conversations start changing in the homes of top-star recruits.

Can Penn State push that boulder back up the always-steep mountain again? Not letting it get even farther down the slope the next few weeks might help a bit.