Plenty of good and bad news for Penn State
The psyche of the sports fan is a fascinating thing as one walks the tightrope of emotions during a game.
For Penn State fans, there had to be a lot of maddening moments early in Saturday’s game at Pitt when you were absolutely disgusted at what you were watching and wondering how much heat James Franklin would be facing after a humiliating loss.
Then, following a fantastic comeback that fell just short in a 42-39 loss, all of a sudden that disgust transformed into positive vibes and optimism for the future.
Penn State isn’t the kind of program that’s supposed to care about moral victories, but this game certainly offered some elements of that.
The important questions to ask about the bizarre game are: What are the real issues that led to all of PSU’s problems, and are the solutions that worked in this particular crazy comeback able to be repeated under different circumstances?
Let’s look at the good news first, the things Nittany Lion fans should feel optimistic about:
1. These players showed a lot of character. To stay focused and pull off the rally they did on the road was very impressive. It looked like PSU was going to lose by 30, and these kids didn’t let it happen. Their comeback fell just short of being legendary, but it was memorable nonetheless.
2. Trace McSorley has a lot of moxie (that word isn’t only for describing Matt McGloin). He stands in the pocket with poise and throws a nice, catchable ball, and he showed in the TaxSlayer Bowl and again Saturday that he’s unfazed by a big deficit. He also didn’t run as much this week, which was good to see for his longevity.
3. Joe Moorhead’s offense works. This isn’t a finished product by any stretch, and it might not be for a couple of years. But what the Lions showed Saturday – getting receivers in space, utilizing all parts of the field, a quarterback with good footwork who’s actually accurate – is light years better than the nonsense we were forced to watch the past two years.
4. Penn State nearly won despite having three starters out (WR Saeed Blacknall, LB Jason Cabinda, DT Kevin Givens for second half). That’s a testament to finally having more quality depth, which Franklin frequently mentions, and the backups being ready to play.
5. Franklin and his assistants deserve a lot of credit for helping keep the players believing that they could come back. Franklin’s optimism and energy are two of his best traits as a coach, and the players surely fed off that.
OK, now the bad news.
1. Penn State’s defense is not real good right now. It should get better with more experience, but when the Lions go up against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State, there’s a very good chance those teams – which are way better than Pitt – will be lighting up the scoreboard.
The Panthers gouged the Lions for 341 yards rushing in scoring 42 points, its most ever in the series’ 97 meetings. Even Kent State ran for more than 200 yards, before accounting for lost sack yardage.
The defense played better in the second half Saturday, but don’t count on the unit being anywhere near the kind of juggernaut we’ve all grown accustomed to.
2. Penn State is going to have win some shootouts to get to seven or even six victories. Expecting the defense to hold any kind of quality offense under 27-30 points will be asking a lot.
OK, so shootouts are fun. Yes. Yes they are. But they also put a lot of pressure on an offense.
PSU’s 39 points were the most the program has ever scored in a loss. Think about that on a historic level and just how crazy it is.
There will be high-scoring games this season, and the Lions’ offense should be good enough to win some. But trying to win one every week with a suspect offensive line and rookie quarterback will be a challenge.
3. Speaking of the O-line, here we go again. It has done very little to open up holes in the running game, and Saturday it got blown up on several key plays as Pitt forced two McSorley fumbles. Left tackle Brendan Mahon must improve substantially by the time the conference season rolls around.
4. Saquon Barkley has 42 carries through two games. Mark Allen has one and Andre Robinson two. That’s far from ideal because Barkley is not going to be able to carry the entire load in Big Ten play, and the non-conference games are the time to get backups some carries so they can get a feel for things.
Allen has experience from last year, but not in this offense. Moorhead needs to get those guys more touches this week against Temple.
5. A huge special teams mistake cost the Lions dearly with Pitt’s 84-yard kickoff return, on a kick that went to the middle of the field where there wasn’t much coverage. Special teams have been better this season, but that kind of thing just cannot keep happening against good opponents.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.