Penn State coach James Franklin knew the 2018 season would be a challenging one given the loss of talented players and strong leaders from his team, not to mention that the Nittany Lions still played in the Big Ten East, one of the toughest divisions in the country.
That doesn't mean back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Michigan State were any less surprising to him. But it just showed how slim the margin of error is, serving as further evidence that things like unforced errors, an inconsistent passing game and penalties will hurt you every time.
"We compete with those teams 365 days a year, and we graduated a bunch of experienced players," Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly teleconference. "So, yeah, I think obviously we knew we had some tremendous challenges to overcome, but also had a lot of confidence.
"I think whether it's high school, college or the NFL, one or two plays each game are significant. Sometimes those plays go your way and sometimes they don't. … You've got to keep focusing on your preparation and the things that you can control so that more of those plays go your way."
While he felt his team improved even in its 27-26 loss to Ohio State, Franklin could not say the same about Saturday's 21-17 defeat at the hands of Michigan State. He lamented a lack of turnovers forced by the defense, as evidenced by two dropped interceptions late in the game, and the continued problems in the passing game with too few explosive plays.
"I think probably one of the mistakes we made is, we were pretty focused on being patient with the running game," he said. "We were able to get the running game going and ran the ball on them better than anybody had all year long, but we weren't as explosive as we needed to be in this offense."
Now the 18th-ranked Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) must bounce back Saturday at Indiana (4-3, 1-3), their first road game in 29 days. They rebounded from consecutive defeats last season against Ohio State and Michigan State, and Franklin said it's a matter of "sticking to our process and focusing on the things that we can control."
"It's making sure that we're being as detailed as we possibly can in meetings," he said, "that we're holding everybody accountable to that standard every single day at practice and that the old guys are helping the young guys mature as much as they possibly can to understand the seriousness and the significance of that standard.
"The biggest thing that we have to do is make sure that we're sticking together, that we're staying positive and that we're focusing on the things that we can control and get those things fixed and get better at them, because obviously last week we did not do that."