If timing indeed is everything, Penn State couldn’t have experienced a worse time to start its 2020 football season at 0-2.
With their schedule shortened from 12 to eight games because of the extended deliberations by the Big Ten over whether to play football at all in the middle of a pandemic, the Nittany Lions already have squandered their shot at a conference championship, never mind any consideration for a College Football Playoff invitation.
Yes, there is frustration and disappointment. But no, they aren’t packing in the season.
“All offseason, that’s what you work for,” junior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said Wednesday. "That’s what all those summer workouts and winter workouts are for. You want to accomplish those goals. But in life, you’re going to face adversity. This isn’t the last time any of us is going to face adversity in our lives.
“When it does happen, you have two options: You can stop what you’re doing and you can let it affect you, or you can use it as motivation and learn from it and continue to get better. That’s kind of where we are right now. Yeah, we’re 0-2, but we’re not going to let it impact the rest of the season. Like Coach says, we’re going to go 1-0 this week. That’s all we can do.”
The Big Ten actually has a nine-game schedule planned this season but the ninth game is a crossover contest between East and West Division teams that had the same finish in the standings. The division winners will meet in the championship game.
Lions coach James Franklin has preached a “1-0” mantra since he took over the helm at Penn State in 2014. Whenever he has been asked about long-range goals, or about keeping his players from looking ahead, he has reiterated that message, or repeated the name of the next opponent a dozen times or more.
He understands how the landscape has changed since the 2014 introduction of the College Football Playoff, a four-team national championship tournament. The Lions finished fifth in the final CFP rankings after winning the 2016 Big Ten title, and while they have ranked in the top 12 in each of the next three years, they have not ended a season higher than ninth.
“In college football, every game is so meaningful,” Franklin said. “And in some ways, where I think the College Football Playoff has made college football even more exciting, it’s created some challenges. It’s very all or nothing with the College Football Playoff now. For the most part, our guys have handled adversity well.”
In his 10th season as a head coach, Franklin is going through his second 0-2 start, having experienced his first in 2012 at Vanderbilt. Coincidentally, Penn State’s last 0-2 start also came in 2012, under Bill O’Brien.
Senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said several team leaders spoke up in the locker room Saturday night after a 38-25 loss to Ohio State, including seniors Shaka Toney, Lamont Wade, and Antonio Shelton.
“The message is, we love each other no matter what, and no matter what, we’re going to find a way,” Castro-Fields said. “That’s as simple as I could put it. As long as we just keep preparing the same, keep focusing on little details and just keep pushing through, that’s all you can do at this point. So I feel like the overall morale is high. We’re still working to be 1-0 and I’m just excited for the rest of the journey.”
The Nittany Lions hurt themselves with turnovers and penalties in their opener at Indiana, and were outplayed by a talented Buckeyes squad. Three key members of their team are not playing. Linebacker Micah Parsons opted out. Running back Journey Brown (medical condition) is sidelined indefinitely and running back Noah Cain (undisclosed injury) is out for the season.
Penn State seeks its first win Saturday at Beaver Stadium when it takes on Maryland, a team it has outscored 163-6 in the last three seasons, including 59-0 last year in College Park. Franklin hopes the errors of the last two weeks have been corrected and that the Lions can finish this week 1-0.
“I know there’s frustration this year, I get it,” he said. “Trust me, there’s nobody more frustrated than the players in our locker room and our staff, but that’s been an approach that’s served us well and we’ll continue to invest in it.”