Penn State and Temple don’t play each other this season but have plenty in common right now. Stakes remain on the line in Happy Valley and at 10th and Diamond. Recruiting doesn’t stop during a pandemic, which means the rest of this season is a precarious time for both programs. Their 2020 seasons already have fallen way too far down the mountain for either to be considered a success.
We can talk about playing for pride and any other movie cliché you want to come up with. These programs, a combined 1-7 right now, are playing for their future.
James Franklin has heard that before. It was easy to write before the 2016 Temple-Penn State game that Franklin simply had to win it, that losing to Temple two years in a row would have caused the Nittany Lions’ fan base to start looking for the next man in charge, with Temple’s coach at the time a favorite candidate.
Ancient history, except that 2016 Penn State group, coming off a loss to Pittsburgh in Week 2, beat Temple, and went on to beat Ohio State and eventually play in one of the greatest Rose Bowls in history. (A loss, but still ...) The Nittany Lions also beat Maryland at home by 24 points and won by two touchdowns at Indiana. Neither of those scores was terribly noteworthy at the time.
And here were are, no dreams of a Rose Bowl left, a salvage operation the best case.
“Is Penn State bad all of a sudden?” a friend asked Saturday. “Thought they had become a top-tier program again. Or at least close to it.”
“Their defensive demon opted out,” I texted back about the team ranked eighth in the Associated Press poll the week before their season opener. “Two running back studs got hurt. … Life is fragile.”
Losing-by-35-7-after-33-minutes-at-home-to-Maryland fragile? Nope, my generic alibi didn’t hold under scrutiny in an eventual 35-19 loss. The Big Ten Network fouled up Saturday, not switching the East Coast feed to the Penn State game for the first half, and that might have seemed like an omen, or act of mercy for Nits fans. That score, 35-7, told the story on its own, though. Its message blares in neon: The Nits stink. An 0-3 start; only five regular-season games -- including trips to Nebraska, Michigan, and Rutgers -- left to show class of 2023 recruits they are a top-tier program still, or at least close to it.
You can’t blame Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons for opting out, with his personal future so bright. But will the next Micah Parsons sign on? Plenty rides on the rest of 2020.
Penn State just lost an in-state stud, Pittsburgh-area defensive back Derrick Davis, to Louisiana State, with Ohio State in the mix, too. I’d still argue that being in that company is important. Lose to Rutgers and conversations start changing in the homes of top-star recruits.
Let’s get to Temple. Here comes another alibi, a real one. Temple probably shouldn’t be playing football this season. The Owls are simply too undermanned due to the pandemic to compete fairly. Tough luck, literally. But if you’re a recruit in the class of 2023 just starting to pay attention, the optics aren’t great. Rod Carey’s first season was a little of this and a little of that, but eight wins in the end. You couldn’t kill him, even after a noncompetitive bowl performance.
Afterward, however, Temple’s stud defensive end transferred to Miami. The stud tight end transferred to Mississippi. The optics looked worse last week when the stud running back opted out and announced his intention to transfer. Midseason opt-out? Sorry, those optics are terrible, pandemic or not.
The Owls are 1-4, huge underdogs at Central Florida, with the promise of being just as huge underdogs in the season finale at home against Cincinnati. One other game left: at home against East Carolina, whose lone win came by 20 points on the road over the same South Florida team that Temple beat by two at the Linc.
Give Carey a pass until 2021? It’s tempting, pandemic and all, except recruits and their confidants won’t.
Can the Penn State and Temple football programs push that boulder back up the always steep mountain again? Not letting it get even farther down the slope the next few weeks might help a bit.