The losses continue, the frustration builds, and the pressure mounts for Penn State, which is running out of chances to grab that elusive first victory of 2020.
The next opportunity is Saturday at Michigan. The challenge for the Nittany Lions once again will be to come out of the gate more successfully than they’ve done in their previous five games, in which they’ve been outscored to the tune of 117-33 in the first half, and try not to add to their turnover total of 13.
Co-captain Jonathan Sutherland concedes that pressure exists, but it is not necessarily an obstacle for him and his teammates.
“I would say they’re not putting it on themselves necessarily, but when you’re 0-5, there is pressure,” Sutherland said Wednesday. “That’s just been fueling us to even come together closer and trusting one another when we’re out on the field. Although there is pressure, it’s just kind of caused us to come closer together as a family.”
At 0-5, Penn State enters the weekend as one of three Power 5 teams that have played at least five games but have not won yet this season. Kansas and Vanderbilt are 0-7. Three Pac-12 teams are winless but have played just two games apiece.
Defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said the only way of looking at the situation is finding “a way to put the pieces all together, execute, and get it done.”
“We could be sitting here at any other type of record, 5-0, 4-1, 3-2,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what our record is. It’s not pressure. It’s the expectation to win because none of us are losers. It’s not some miracle breakthrough that’s going to happen. That’s not how football works. It’s like a formula. It’s an everyday constant type of thing.
“It’s how you approach everything. There’s never a breakout singular moment. It’s a culmination of a bunch of things that line up because you put the work in, and we’ve been putting the work in.”
The expectation was there last week. Coming off a strong second half in a Nov. 14 loss at Nebraska, the Lions held an early 7-3 advantage against Iowa, their first lead since the overtime period of their season opener at Indiana. But the Hawkeyes put up 21 points in the second quarter to take a 24-7 halftime lead, another hole too deep to dig out of.
Thwarted expectations lead to frustration, and that is present. But wide receiver Jahan Dotson said the players are close enough to talk with each other.
“We’re such a close-knit group,” he said. “We’re always together. We know we can go to each other when all else fails. Coach [James] Franklin preaches that we have to stay together, and we’re all that we got right now. Even though we’re not where we want to be right now, it’s good that we’re still together. We know we can depend on each other no matter what the circumstances.”
Franklin acknowledges that some players come to his office to talk, and that he has begun bringing in mostly young players every Monday, which is the team’s day off, “just checking in with them and making sure they’re OK.”
However, Franklin said team bonding activities, such as inviting players to his home for dinner or having team meetings in their usual meeting room, have not been happening because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s just been very different, that connection, the ability to interact,” he said. “I think it’s so important. It’s such a big part of our program that you’re able to spend some time away from football with the guys on a very personal level, and that allows you to work through some of the challenging times and things like that. So it’s just very different.”
The Nittany Lions know they can ease the pressure and the frustration with a win on Saturday. Sutherland said it’s been a gradual approach to be as prepared as possible.
“Obviously the circumstances we’re in right now, we’re just taking it day by day,” he said, “really not focusing solely on the day of the game but on our preparation [each day] throughout the whole week. I’m motivating guys and encouraging guys that, although this is a down year, we’re still playing the game that we love, and we’re playing together as a family. So we have a lot to play for.”