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Disorganization spooking 0-2 Lions

PSU football commentary

UNIVERSITY PARK — On Halloween night, in an eerie backdrop under a full moon, with only family and staff dotting cavernous Beaver Stadium, Ohio State was anything but spooked.

In fact, the only people scared are the legion of Nittany Nation fans suddenly dealing with an 0-2 start following Ohio State’s 38-25 domination.

The Buckeyes’ Garrett Wilson busted a 62-yard run on the game’s first play, Justin Fields shredded the Penn State pass defense for 318 yards and four touchdowns, and the Lions were swimming upstream all night.

“There’s a bunch of things we’ve got to get cleaned up,” was James Franklin’s understatement.

Franklin himself pushed the panic button almost immediately after Ohio State scored on its first possession. Facing fourth-and-2 from the Lions’ own 45, instead of punting and playing some field position, Penn State threw an incompletion, and the Buckeyes turned the short field into a 14-0 lead.

“We wanted to be aggressive,” Franklin said. “We went into the game knowing we’d need to score touchdowns. That’s why we went for it.”

That didn’t beat Penn State, but it didn’t help. The Lions lost because they were dominated on both sides of the ball. They couldn’t stop Ohio State’s balanced offense or sustain their own running game.

And when they did crawl within a touchdown, 21-13 in the third quarter, the Buckeyes quickly regained their two-score comfort zone.

“Every time we would get it going on offense, we’d give up something on defense,” Franklin said. “And our defense would get a stop and our offense wouldn’t … we just weren’t playing complementary football.”

There’s no shame in losing to Ohio State. The Lions are used to that, having lost eight times in nine games, the exception being the Allen-Haley miracle finish in 2016.

Troubling Saturday night, as well as in the season-opening loss at Indiana, was a sense of disorganization.

The Lions took two more delay of game penalties — one inside the Ohio State 10 when a touchdown was needed down 14-0 — and defensive confusion resulted in having 10 men on the field in the red zone before the 11th was rushed in just in time to have a TD pass thrown in front of him.

And that was after Penn State had taken a timeout.

“We were in our dollar package and we had a young man (Ji’Ayir Brown) that didn’t go on the field,” Franklin said. “That’s inexcusable. That’s on us as coaches. Those are the things that are happening that should never happen. We haven’t really had those issues in six years.”

All of this, of course, comes on the heels of last week’s debacle at Indiana when the lack of clock management cost Penn State the game.

Slow starts have also been a common thread as the Lions have managed only one touchdown in the first half — actually on the opening drive at Indiana — through two games.

“We have to jump out early,” quarterback Sean Clifford said. “We have to figure it out in the first half for sure. We can’t be a second-half team.”

On the line of scrimmage shakiness, Clifford took blame, perhaps deflecting it from new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.

“It’s a combination of getting the play in, and I’ve got to execute,” he said. “Kirk does a good job giving me enough time to operate. I just have to move faster.”

Clifford has been taking a beating. His offensive line was eaten by the Buckeyes, which contributed to zero running game (44 yards). On one play, as Clifford was trying to hand off to Devyn Ford, the two were tackled simultaneously by Ohio State defensive end Zack Harrison.

Clifford has now carried 35 times in two games, way too much if he wants to be upright in December.

“We thought we could get the quarterback run going,” Clifford said.

As was the case at Indiana, Clifford played well in the second half. Saturday night, he was 16-of-23 for 251 yards and three touchdowns after halftime, all to Jahan Dotson, who was outstanding with eight catches for 144 yards.

“I have no idea why we keep starting so slow,” Dotson said. “But we’ve got to fix that.”

Dodson tried to caution, “There’s a lot of football left.”

Maybe so, there’s already a big hole in the season, and it’s leaking air quickly. It was especially noticeable without fans when you could hear every Ohio State parent’s shout of encouragement.

Meanwhile, it was two years ago that Franklin, after a come-from-ahead loss to the Buckeyes — Penn State couldn’t cover their receivers that night, either — delivered his famous “elite” speech, saying the Lions were a great team, but he promised to make them elite.

Well, the Nittany Lions are no longer a great team. Right now, they’re not even a good team.

As for the Buckeyes, they are still elite, and they are definitely not scared.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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