Turnovers, mistakes, and slow starts have led to frustration and disappointment for Penn State, not to mention an 0-5 start, the worst in the history of the Nittany Lions’ storied football program.
So the question was asked of Lions head coach James Franklin right away at his weekly press conference: Have you lost your football team?
“I guess what I would say is, I look at how we have played late in games and we’ve given ourselves a chance to win some games in the second half by how we’ve battled and competed,” Franklin said.
“Obviously there’s disappointment, obviously there’s frustration, but I see how our guys are in the locker room after a game. I see how our guys are at practice, and I see how our guys have competed late in games.”
While competing late in games is admirable, it doesn’t hide the fact that Penn State, which plays Saturday at Michigan (2-3), has had to fight like crazy after falling into deep deficits early. Opponents hold a 117-33 advantage over the Lions in the first half through five games, and all halftime deficits have been by double-digits.
The last two weeks, Penn State’s two quarterbacks have come off the bench to rally their team but could not finish. Will Levis twice drove the Lions inside the red zone needing one touchdown to tie Nebraska but fell short. Sean Clifford threw touchdown passes on his first two snaps against Iowa to make it a 10-point game but had two throws intercepted in the fourth quarter, one a pick-six.
“I’m not saying there’s not frustration and disappointment,” Franklin said. “But I see the guys really trying to do what we’ve asked and are sticking together. One of the things that’s helped is the guys know that our structure, our system, works and has worked at a very, very high level. So I think we need to continue to do that, and it’s more challenging right now than ever.”
The coach was referring to his program’s previous four-year run that included 42 victories and three New Year’s Six bowl appearances.
Franklin also knows it’s a difficult time for his players, who have made the sacrifices necessary to play a football season in a pandemic but have not seen their efforts rewarded. He said he planned to be on a Zoom call Tuesday night with parents “to keep them informed of how our guys are doing.”
He added, however, that parents, who have been allowed to attend each of the first five games, will not be permitted in Michigan Stadium on Saturday because of COVID-related restrictions spelled out in a three-week executive order signed last week by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“Their college experiences have been very different,” Franklin said of his players. “So stay positive, keep working through, keep loving these guys, keep supporting these guys and remind everybody why we do this, and also try to remind everybody who we’ve been over the previous four years, try to keep everybody focused on the big picture, too.”
As to which quarterback will start Saturday’s game, Franklin would only say, “We’re going to need them both.”
“I think the reality is, turnovers have been probably one of our bigger issues,” he said. “We’ve had them with both of them. So we need to protect the football but we’re going to need both of those guys. They’re both very passionate. They both work really hard. They both have skills. We’re going to continue to grind and work through this to try to find a way to be successful [Tuesday], and then this Saturday against Michigan.”
Penn State has 13 turnovers in five games and its 2.6 per-game average is fifth-worst in FBS. The Lions’ two quarterbacks have accounted for all the miscues – Clifford with two lost fumbles and eight interceptions, and Levis with three lost fumbles.
Still, the Nittany Lions will go through another practice week looking for that first victory and finding strength being together on Thanksgiving.
“Our family is the team,” Franklin said. “We’ve got Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday. We’ll practice Thursday morning and give thanks and focus on our blessings. But yeah, this has been a tough year.”