Standing at 5-0, Lions still have room for improvement

UNIVERSITY PARK — Coming off its incredible, nationally-televised last-play win at Iowa, Penn State returned to Beaver Stadium on Saturday looking to build on its momentum.

And, for 14 minutes, the Nittany Lions did just that, scoring in every way imaginable, taking full advantage of Indiana’s mistake, and putting a lid on the Hoosiers’ dangerous up-tempo offense.

Penn State looked like a team that would not be out of place in the college football playoff. More importantly, Penn State looked like a team capable of going into Columbus and winning.

Unfortunately for the Lions, the game is 60 minutes long, and the cosmetically-enhanced 45-14 final score as they improved to 5-0 for the first time since 2008 did little if anything to dispel some trends that should be concerning to Penn State fans.

After getting out to the big lead, the offense essentially went into sleep mode for the next two quarters.

Even with the best and most dynamic running back in college football — and possibly Penn State history — the Lions averaged a paltry 1.1 yards per carry. That number was influenced by Indiana’s five sacks, but even Saquon Barkley only netted 2.8 yards on 20 attempts.

Trace McSorley was the victim of several jail-break blitzes.

Even when he had time, McSorley continued to struggle with missing open receivers, often overthrowing them.

“We weren’t picking up their pressures that well, just felt a little off,” McSorley said. I wasn’t giving our receivers the best chance they need to catch the ball and run with it. … Just not flowing the way we know we can, the way we normally do.”

The special teams was spectacular except for one important aspect, as Tyler Davis missed his fifth field goal in as many games, a 21-yard chip shot. Another later in the game was blocked.

That’s not to say Penn State is a bad team or even played poorly. It’s just, to take liberties with Spider-man creator Stan Lee’s words, with great expectations come great responsibility. When you have great expectations, that’s how you’re going to be measured.

To his credit, Lion coach James Franklin saw it that way, too.

“I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, we are going to enjoy winning around here, but there are still some things we have to be honest with ourselves about and get cleaned up,” Franklin said. “There are areas we have to get better, for where we want to go and what we want to do, we have to get better.

“We need to identify those things and spend a lot of time on them on Sunday and Monday, working to get better in those areas. A lot of it is just fundamentals, finishing blocks on offense, defensively being a little bit more consistent.”

A lot of that would seemingly be resolved by better line play. A more-consistent run game and a cleaner McSorley, probably makes for a more accurate McSorley. In turn, there’d be more touchdowns and fewer pressure field goals to need made.

“There’s always room for improvement. There were hiccups here and there,” left tackle Ryan Bates said. “We can get better, obviously.”

The Lions have been alternating Chasz Wright and Will Fries at right tackle, and it would seem to help if someone could step up and take that job, but there’s no sign of that yet.”

“I’d always like to settle on one group and one guy, but the game of football doesn’t work like that,” Franklin said. “You’re going to have bumps, you’re going to have bruises, and it’s a next man in mentality; next guy who has to go in and do a really good job. I think long term it’s going to help us, but yeah I think I’d love to go all season with the same five starters on the offensive line.”

As a wise coach once said, you’re never as bad as you think when you lose or as good as you think when you win. The most difficult part of Penn State’s regular season is coming up, starting with a trip in six days to Northwestern. After a bye week, the Lions host Michigan and then travel to Ohio State back to back.

They know what they need to do to get better. Now it comes down to doing it.

“We need to play four-quarter football,” Franklin said. “We still need to be able to play four quarters at a very high level.”

Cmor can be reached at 946-7440 or pcmor@altoonamirror.com.

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