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Time for hard truths after PSU defeat

Seeing Penn State ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff last week had to be pretty cool for all Nittany Lion fans.

But be honest here: Didn’t it feel like a bit of a mirage?

The Lions had the resume, relative to everyone else, to deserve their No. 4 ranking. No question about it.

But what I’m asking you is: Did you ever truly believe PSU was the fourth-best team in the country?

The Lions are a year ahead of schedule. Most people predicted 8-4 or 9-3 this season, and the team is sitting here at 8-1 following Saturday’s overall poor showing in a 31-26 loss at Minnesota.

This has been a great year so far, even though Saturday was a dud.

And even though Penn State laid an egg defensively and finally couldn’t overcome the offensive inconsistency, it still had a great chance to win at the end. That’s noteworthy. Not talking moral victories, but good enough to pitch a solid game even without your best stuff.

For the record, Minnesota won the game. Penn State didn’t lose it. I know a lot of you out may disagree with that. You’d say PSU did things to hurt itself, and you’re not wrong.

But let’s give the other guy credit. The Gophers played an excellent game on both sides of the ball. Congratulations to them on a fantastic victory.

At no point, watching the Lions’ up-and-down play this season, have I believed they could go into Columbus in two weeks and beat Ohio State. I’ve always thought the Buckeyes would win that game very comfortably, and I absolutely believe that now.

If .. and it’s big if … but if PSU can win at Ohio State, it still very well could make the College Football Playoff. That would be such a tremendous win on the road that it would sway public opinion back toward the Lions, regardless of what happened at Minnesota.

But first things first. Before anyone starts to get their hopes up about beating the Buckeyes, it’s time to take a look at some hard truths about this Penn State team.

n Ricky Rahne is an average offensive coordinator. He’s not great. He’s not terrible. He’s middle of the pack. He’s in his second year as a playcaller, and he’s learning on the job. He makes some awesome calls and some awful calls. He had a bad day Saturday. My concern is that Penn State cannot get to a playoff with Rahne performing his job at his current level. He’s got to step it up in a major way. The Lions can win a whole bunch of games with Rahne calling plays like he does because they have a ton of talent, but his decisions in the clutch against the best competition simply must improve.

n The offensive players also have to make plays. Not all of the blame falls on Rahne when guys are dropping passes and executing poorly.

n Rahne is always a lightning rod for criticism, while defensive coordinator Brent Pry usually gets a bunch of praise. But Pry’s defense was lousy Saturday, and he deserves more criticism than Rahne. Penn State’s secondary was absolutely awful. I mean, dudes were running around wide open all day, and Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan was on fire, completing 18-of-20 for for 339 yards and three TDs.

n PSU’s vaunted defensive line got pushed around by Minnesota’s big O-line. And Pry failed to dial up blitz packages that could get to Morgan, who was getting rid of the ball quickly. On top of that, the defensive backs were giving way too much cushion, which coupled with them looking lost on their assignments made things way too easy for Minnesota. It wasn’t a surprise, really, because both Iowa and Michigan threw the ball well against Penn State.

n For as good as the program is in overall depth, the wide receiver group has been a big disappointment. Again. KJ Hamler is outstanding and fun to watch, but the Lions just don’t get enough out of everyone else. Jahan Dotson had a strong finish with a 49-yard grab, but he had only three catches. I have no idea why once highly touted recruit Justin Shorter has failed to make any kind of impact. Many very smart recruiting folks thought Shorter would be a superstar. He’s done essentially nothing. The receiver issue was a huge problem last year with so many drops. And this overall group just isn’t anywhere near as good as one you’d expect a top 10 team to have. There’s clearly something wrong with the program’s development of the wideouts.

n Sean Clifford had a rough day throwing the ball. He missed open targets with too many poor throws and didn’t protect the ball, throwing three interceptions. Clifford has a chance to be outstanding, but he’s still battling inconsistency, which you’d expect from a first-year starter, just not as much after nine games.

n I have said repeatedly — and will stand by it — that I think Penn State can win the national title next year. Almost the entire team is back, and Ohio State visits PSU, making that game vastly more winnable than having to go to Columbus. There continues to be a problem, however, with this coaching staff in close games. There are just too many questionable or downright bad decisions. Penn State can get away with those against most teams because it simply has more talent. But it’s hard to have great faith in the coaches when they get outcoached as badly as they did by Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and his staff.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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