Two days before Penn State’s primetime matchup with Ohio State, David Corley was confident. The Nittany Lions’ new wide receivers coach, peppered with questions about Penn State’s drop issues through four games, said the likes of Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins had done a good job of “pushing forward,” mentally moving on from making crippling mistakes.
But Penn State’s drop problem didn’t disappear against the Buckeyes — and it could continue to rear its ugly head as the Nittany Lions approach the second half of 2018.
Through five weeks, Penn State pass-catchers have combined for 12 drops. Johnson leads the pack with five, followed by Thompkins (3), Brandon Polk (2), Miles Sanders (1) and Jon Holland (1). Corley, who was not on staff in 2017 but presumably looked at the numbers out of curiosity, said the Nittany Lions had eight drops through four games last year. So the gap between the two seasons isn’t that big.
Still, head coach James Franklin said the Nittany Lion wideouts “can be more consistent.” That, no one can dispute.
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“The receivers individually would say that. I think David Corley would say that, as well,” Franklin noted after Wednesday’s bye week practice. “That’s what we’re working toward. Everybody owns it. It’s not any one person. ...It just happens.”
The problem is, it’s happening in key moments. Against Appalachian State, Johnson had a would-be 40-yard gain in his hands late in the fourth quarter. He let the ball slip through his grasp, and the Nittany Lions needed overtime to stave off the Week 1 upset bid. At Pitt, Thompkins dropped two touchdowns. The following week, Sanders bobbled a pass that fell into a Kent State defender’s arms for Trace McSorley’s first INT of the season.
And last weekend — given the College Football Playoff implications — Penn State suffered its two biggest drops of the year. On the Nittany Lions’ opening drive, Johnson muffed a third-and-8 drag route, one that could have led to a first down deep into Ohio State territory. Instead, Penn State had to punt. And late in the third quarter, Polk dropped what would have been a gain of 14 yards or more. Two plays later, the Nittany Lions were stopped on fourth-and-1 at Ohio State’s 24-yard line. If Polk makes that grab, Penn State has at least a chip shot field goal, crucial in a one-point loss.
Asked about the ongoing problem after Penn State’s 27-26 defeat, Johnson used Franklin’s words: “It just happens.”
“As wide receivers, we have drops,” the redshirt junior said. “Quarterbacks are going to miss their reads. Running backs are going to miss their vision or reads. ...We just have to keep doing what we’re doing. Things are going to work. It’s just a process.”
Considering Penn State’s remaining Big Ten slate, Nittany Lion fans better hope that process sped up during the bye week. Penn State returns to action against Michigan State — which has allowed 288.3 passing yards per game through five weeks, ranking 114th in the country. That matchup ought to be easy for Johnson, Thompkins, Polk and company. After that, though, it gets tougher, as Indiana (14th), Iowa (27th), Michigan (4th) and Wisconsin (25th) possess top-tier pass defenses.
Against those squads — with the Nittany Lions needing to run the table for a chance at making the playoff — the margin for error is slim. Drops can’t continue to be a theme for Penn State’s wideouts — and everyone involved understands that.
“Every time we’re doing drills in practice, we’re working on eyes on the football,” Corley said last week. “I’m always constantly yelling, “Eyes! Eyes! Eyes!” You need to harp on it, harp on it, harp on it. And when you get in the game, I’m hoping they’re hearing my voice echoing in their head as they’re going to track those footballs. ...It happens from time to time, but we have to keep working on the fundamentals.”
Added Franklin: “I know it’s not for a lack of effort. We need to be more consistently focused.”