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Time for Lions to start looking ahead

PSU football commentary

Since Penn State has never been 0-5, there’s no reference point in how the Nittany Lions handled that adversity.

The closest stretch of futility was the early 2000s when the Lions managed four losing seasons in five years.

Joe Paterno wanted a chance to bring the program back and kept insisting the program was just a couple players away, and he turned out to be right as the addition of speedsters and decorated recruits Derrick Williams and Justin King were difference makers.

They sparked a resurgence that produced an 11-1 record and No. 3 ranking in 2005, which was followed by a trip to the Rose Bowl in 2008.

Will there be a turnaround in 2021 or is this year the beginning of a multiple-year slide?

There’s no question James Franklin and his coaching staff have not handled the coronavirus and all the distractions and adjustments it has created well.

Franklin keeps talking about how he’s a “relational” coach, someone who thrives on one-on-one and group interaction and how that’s been compromised by having to meet via Zoom.

But by the time things get back to normal, how damaged will the Penn State program be? Unlike 20 years ago, when the Lions just needed a couple pieces, the voids now seem deeper.

Even if the Lions win today at Michigan (noon, ABC) and finish the season with, say, three or four wins in their last five games (depending if there’s a bowl opportunity since every team is eligible this year), there will be many forecasting a sub-.500 season next year.

It’s more likely they will end up this season with two wins or less.

“Obviously, when you have challenged like this, it creates more things you have to work through,” a subdued but cordial Franklin said during his press conference this week. “Life and sports are about handling adversity, and that’s what we’re going to do — find a way to get better today and get back on track.

“We’re not the first program to face this, and we won’t be the last, but we’re going to get it fixed.”

There’s certainly a lot to fix.

For one thing, it’s fair to ask if there’s a quarterback in the program able to lead the Lions back to respectability — let alone Big Ten East contention — or whether a graduate transfer is needed by January.

After being intercepted just twice in the first seven games of 2019, Sean Clifford has been intercepted 13 times in his last 10 games — four games of two picks or more, including three of those this year.

And yet, Clifford may still start today over Will Levis, who seems to be a run-first quarterback, although his arm strength is highly-regarded.

For what it’s worth, I would give Levis another shot to continue the position’s evaluation process.

Then again, if neither are protected better, it may not matter who starts.

The Lions began to phase in some younger players on the offensive line last week, such as Caeden Wallace, and we’ll see if that trend continues on the beleaguered line and at other positions (like safety) today.

Tailback Devyn Ford is questionable with an injury so the top two running backs may be true freshmen Keyvone Lee, who has impressed so far, and Caziah Holmes. Fireplug Tank Smith (5-7, 227) out of Penn Hills may get a chance.

I’m also curious whether the coaching staff will begin calling plays with more reckless abandon. Obviously, the Lions aren’t going anywhere so they might as well take a few chances — which they should have been doing from day one.

A halfback option, some misdirection and general offensive ingenuity have been sorely lacking. Ditto the special teams, which have produced splash plays, either.

The Nittany Lions might as well find out if some new plays and new players work now — and which ones can be utilized in 2021.

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

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