There’s a lot that can be explained away this season.
Penn State didn’t have spring practices or the annual Blue-White scrimmage. Its summer workout plan was far from conventional as the team attempted to walk the tightrope of adhering to strict safety protocols, all while trying to maintain somewhat of a normal offseason training schedule.
All of those things are true, and they all have contributed to the Nittany Lions’ baffling start.
Here’s the thing: The Nittany Lions aren’t the only team that’s had to deal with those circumstances.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that Penn State brought in four new coaches this offseason in Kirk Ciarrocca (offensive coordinator), Phil Trautwein (offensive line), John Scott Jr. (defensive line) and Taylor Stubblefield (wide receivers).
There was bound to be an adjustment period. That’s to be expected.
Here’s another thing: Penn State isn’t the only program that’s replaced coaches.
Rutgers and Michigan State are Big Ten programs with first-year head coaches. They’re also programs that have experienced a win this season. Outside of the Big Ten, first-year coaches Sam Pittman (Arkansas, SEC), Jeff Hafley (Boston College, ACC) and Dave Aranda (Baylor, Big 12) have a checkmark in the win column in 2020.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Penn State should be 3-0 heading into next week’s road game at Nebraska, but there should at least be some signs of progress.
Penn State looked like a team going backward while Maryland looked like far sharper on the field.
Maryland went 3-9 overall and 1-8 in Big Ten games last season. Penn State thoroughly dismantled the Terrapins 59-0 on the road last September as part of a Maryland freefall that saw the program close out the year on a seven-game losing streak.
While improved from last year, Maryland is far from a conference juggernaut. If anything, the Terrapins have been one of the programs Penn State could consistently rely upon for a win. In the previous 43 meetings heading into this weekend, Maryland had only won two and tied the Nittany Lions once during the series’ history.
The Nittany Lions carried a five-game win streak into Saturday.
“I don’t think we’ve underestimated anybody,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “When you haven’t been successful the first couple of games, it’s hard to underestimate anyone. That’s not how we’ve approached it. Our approach hasn’t changed. It’s the same approach it’s been for six years.”
Entering this week, I told my colleagues Kevin Brockway and George Bremer during our weekly segment on Inside the Game that I could see Penn State going 6-0 during the next stretch of the schedule. At the time, given Penn State’s remaining six opponents (Maryland, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State) it didn’t seem too far of a leap.
That observation was predicated on Penn State finding its identity and stringing together four consistent quarters. I, along with anyone watching, certainly didn’t see any of that this weekend.
This isn’t a normal season. A lot can be explained away. Further adding to Penn State’s challenges is the fact that the Nittany Lions are without linebacker Micah Parsons and running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain. Those high-impact losses are bound to affect a team’s trajectory.
Those losses, coupled with the madness that is 2020, can make things difficult for any program. That reality, as stark as it might be, still doesn’t explain Penn State’s start to the season.
Penn State now faces the task of putting the past three games behind it and not letting this most recent loss beat it twice.
Franklin and Penn State players each week, whether it’s following a win or a loss, say their sole focus moving forward to go 1-0. For the third time this season, they’ll enter a new week and test that mantra as they prepare for their trip to Nebraska.
“We need to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves if we’re doing everything the coaches are asking us to do and if we’re doing everything we’re capable of doing,” Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth said.