Penn State has three regular season games and a bowl left on the schedule, but it won’t be the postseason appearance anyone ever imagined. This 2017 season will never be what so many believed it could.
A nine-game winning streak a year ago propelled Penn State to the national conversation, and the Nittany Lions rolled with it. SportsCenter appearances, talk shows, longform features — all eyes were on Penn State as Happy Valley geared up for a College Football Playoff push.
But those aspirations took on water with a one-point loss at Ohio State last week — and sunk to the bottom on Saturday night at Spartan Stadium.
When No. 7 Penn State (7-2) fell 27-24 on a last-second field goal to No. 24 Michigan State (7-2), an underlying problem was brought to light: The Nittany Lions, internally, haven’t dealt with “outside noise” appropriately. At least, according to James Franklin and Penn State’s team leaders.
And if the Nittany Lions are going to move on and finish this regular season 10-2, that has to change.
“We haven’t been a part of these conversations for a long time, and we haven’t handled it well,” Franklin said. “That’s on me, and that won’t happen again. Because the formula that I know works, we’re getting back to. We’re not talking about anything else.”
Added running back Saquon Barkley: “When we were down and out last year at 2-2, we weren’t even talked about. We’re getting talked about a lot now. We just have to find a way to get back to who we are and be true to ourselves.”
The first thing fans or pundits might want to point to is the Ohio State loss — one game beating the team twice, essentially. There had to be a hangover.
Well, not to the Nittany Lions. Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley both said that practice this week was productive, crisp and clean. There wasn’t any negative residual effect from blowing an 18-point lead at The Horseshoe.
No, this is more of a big-picture problem.
Franklin called Penn State “a young program” in terms of what it’s been through relatively recently. In the coach’s first 30 games at Penn State, the Nittany Lions won 16 times. They’ve won as many in his last 19.
“When things are going well, there’s a lot of noise, a lot of positivity, a lot of patting on the back,” Franklin said. “And then when you lose a game, it’s the complete opposite. It couldn’t be more negative.
“We’re not mature enough to handle that.”
The thing is, though, Penn State’s leaders believed they were.
“We thought we had a good handle on it,” McSorley said. “But it’s affecting us a little bit more than we initially thought it was.”
Added Barkley: “We lost two games in a row. ... Me and the leaders, we felt like we did a good job dealing with that. But the coaches, that’s how they feel, and the coaches are going to be right. They have the best opinion and view of the team.”
Franklin shared as much with the team in the postgame locker room. His “formula” of focusing on winning the week, respecting the opponent, etc., has to — well — come back into focus.
The Nittany Lions know that now more than ever.
The College Football Playoff is no longer a motivating factor. Subsequently, neither is a national championship. But Barkley, McSorley, DaeSean Hamilton and Penn State’s elder statesmen have played for smaller stakes in the past. And in Hamilton’s estimation, now they need to get “back to our roots.”
“What’s at stake is guys playing with heart and with dignity,” Hamilton said. “That’ll put us in position for a good bowl game at the end of the year.”
Added redshirt junior Koa Farmer: “We’re not the type of program not to finish the season. That’s just not what Penn State’s tradition is. We’re going to win the next three games. We’re going to not look at the things we can’t control.”