The word “distraction” is usually an unpleasant term when describing why a football team is not playing up to its capabilities, typically referring to a lack of focus in preparing for games because of issues inside or outside of the locker room.
But when Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson dropped that word to explain part of why the Nittany Lions are 0-3, it didn’t tell the whole story. Head coach James Franklin addressed the situation more directly Wednesday night while disclosing that star running back Journey Brown would have to quit football for good because of a heart condition.
“I think sometimes,” Franklin said, “when you guys hear the players talk about distractions and things like that that are going on and they don’t get into the details of it, these are some of the things that have been kind of happening behind the scenes. Then obviously, Noah [Cain] goes down on the first drive … it’s just been a lot of things that the guys have been managing and working through.”
In addition to the sudden retirement of Brown, one of the most popular players on the team, and the season-ending injury to Cain, his replacement, other distractions include the separation of Franklin from his family in order to keep isolated the younger of his two daughters, who has sickle cell trait, and the constant coronavirus threat.
The Lions get another chance to focus in on Saturday when they visit Nebraska (0-2) seeking their first victory of 2020.
Regarding COVID-19, the Penn State athletic programs have put up good numbers in recent weeks. The athletic department’s latest report Wednesday counted just six positive cases among 2,285 athletes tested from Oct. 31 to Nov. 6. In the last six weeks, out of 8,675 tests conducted, only 37 have come back positive. The department does not break down tests by program.
However, the latest period does not count last Saturday when Maryland defeated the Lions, 35-19, at Beaver Stadium. The Terrapins athletic department reported four days later that eight players had tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in the cancellation of Saturday’s game against No. 3 Ohio State.
Franklin said Wednesday night there were no new cases among his players. The athletic department released a statement Thursday that said preparations for the Nebraska game were continuing and that the program “will continue to monitor the health and safety of our student-athletes and staff through the Big Ten testing and medical protocols.”
“All these things have had an impact,” Franklin said. "I know they’ve had an impact on me. I have spent a lot of time on non-football things, whether that’s through the day or out at practice. We are staying vigilant in attacking and making sure our protocols keep everybody as safe and healthy as we possibly can.
“During practice, I’m going to let the trainers and the doctors manage COVID and I’m going to coach football. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to manage those other things as well. I feel like I have a responsibility for that as a head coach, but I also have a responsibility to make sure that we play well.”
Franklin admitted earlier this week that he had “not done a great job of managing my family being gone” and feels as if it has affected his job.
“I’ve got to come to work, I’ve got to do a great job,” he said.
Defensive end Jayson Oweh said the players fully support Franklin.
“We got Coach,” he said. “We’re his family. He always makes sure that he tells us he loves us. We love them. So we’ve got them. We’re his family here.”
In this matchup of two of college football’s most prestigious programs, Penn State has one thing in its favor, that Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium will not be hosting its 376th consecutive sellout because of Big Ten attendance rules during the pandemic allowing only family of players and staff in the building.
The Nittany Lions' problems are numerous. Having scored 20 points in the first half of their three games, they must get off to a faster start. The offensive line needs to block better for the running game and do a more effective job of protecting quarterback Sean Clifford (13 sacks). They need a stronger pass rush on defense and their secondary (eight touchdown passes allowed) needs to do better eliminating big plays. They must not add to the seven turnovers they’ve committed thus far.
The Cornhuskers will present problems with their two running quarterbacks, Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey, who have combined for 316 rushing yards in two games. But their offense has trouble scoring (15.0 points per game) and converting on third down (30.8% success rate). The Lions can run on them and need to do it more than they did last week against Maryland.
This game is a toss-up, coming down to which team can create a break late. The storyteller in me says the Lions are going to win it for Journey Brown.