The Penn State players who emerged from the visiting locker room at Michigan Stadium on Saturday did so with mostly blank expressions on their faces.
Some appeared stunned, unable to accept their performance in a lackluster second-half that saw the Wolverines shut out the Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten) in the second half despite scoring just eight points of their own, two of which came on a sacrifice safety in the final minutes.
The fact that the loss came after the team’s first bye week in which players had a handful of days to rest up and put in some extra preparation didn’t make the loss any harder to swallow.
“A loss is a loss,” kicker Sam Ficken said. “It sucks either way.”
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Running back Bill Belton, usually one of Penn State’s more fiery interviews, was visibly frustrated following the team’s second-straight conference loss. He often glanced down and spoke in a monotone afterward.
“It is tough when you take two in a row,” Belton said.
But the positive air has not been completely sucked out of Penn State’s season.
Coach James Franklin, a self-described optimist, said he sensed on Sunday his players were upset over the loss at The Big House. And the schedule makers have provided Penn State players with a perfect rebound chance — a game at Beaver Stadium against No. 13 Ohio State (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten). They’ll just have to wait an extra week for what Franklin described as a great opportunity to play a ranked team.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt when you have back-to-back losses that there’s an emotional effect from that,” Franklin said. “But we’re 4-2 right now. I think at this same point last year we were 4-2. A lot of teams in the country would love to be in that position right now. We have challenges and things we need to get better at, but I think the coaches and players are as optimistic and as positive about this season and our future as we’ve ever been.”
The immediate future includes another off week. Penn State is idle again on Saturday while Ohio State hosts Rutgers (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten).
For Penn State, the off week will be utilized in similar fashion as two weeks ago. Franklin gave his starters and most of his veteran players most of the last bye week off. Coaches took advantage of the extra time over the end of the week and weekend to hit the road recruiting. It appears this will be the plan again.
“Looking forward to getting out with the guys, get some things corrected,” Franklin said. “Take some time off in terms of the banging and the running that we’re having on our team as well. Going back and we’re finding some things and looking at some of the things that we need to be focusing on more. It’s coming at a good time for us and our coaches are excited about it, we’ll get on the road recruiting as well.”
Franklin said improvements must be made across the board in all areas. Specifically, Penn State needs to improve its running game on offense and do a better job of keeping quarterback Christian Hackenberg upright. Hackenberg has already taken 20 sacks this season.
“We’ve got to play faster. We’re not playing as fast as we need to right now,” Franklin said. “Aggressively, that’s really in all three phases. I think special teams and offense is probably what everybody’s focused on, but I think in all three phases we can play faster and more aggressive.”
Penn State players, who are not being made available to reporters this week, know they still have an opportunity to compete for the Big Ten championship even if they’ll need a little help.
Currently in sixth place in the East Division, Penn State can help its own cause by beating the Buckeyes in two weeks. They also still have Michigan State (5-1, 2-0) and Maryland (4-2, 1-1) to play. Both teams sit ahead of Penn State in the race for the East Division title. Both of those games will be at Beaver Stadium.
“We’ve just got to get back on track,” Belton said. “We’re still in control of our season.”