Penn State Football

How Citrus Bowl loss served as a microcosm for Penn State’s 2018 season

Phil Galiano’s special teams unit was unwatchable. David Corley’s wide receivers couldn’t hang onto the ball. Ricky Rahne’s attack didn’t hit top gear. And when the offense came close to looking like its former self, it did so after a stagnant first half.

Sound familiar?

Penn State — a team that entered this year with College Football Playoff expectations — made the same simple mistakes over and over again in the regular season. And Tuesday night’s Citrus Bowl was no different.

“Credit to Kentucky. They played really well for four quarters,” head coach James Franklin said matter of factly, but accurately. “We didn’t play well for four quarters. ... And against good football teams, you can’t do that.”

In more ways than one, the 27-24 loss to Kentucky served as a microcosm for the Nittany Lions’ 2018 campaign, something that ought to frustrate Penn State’s coaches, players and fans.

From September to now, the Nittany Lions knew what their problems were. Through five weeks, Penn State led the Big Ten with 17 dropped passes. From Sept. 29 to Nov. 17, the Nittany Lions averaged 22.3 points per game. In the team’s first six contests, it allowed two onside kicks, gave up a critical fake punt conversion and seemingly shanked one punt for every boomer. Heck, on Penn State’s first kickoff of the year, it surrendered a 100-yard touchdown. Talk about a bad omen.

Even though Franklin, his staff and his players verbalized and owned up to those issues on a weekly basis, little improvements were made. That was apparent in Orlando.

Senior wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins dropped a pair of first-down catches and let a Sean Clifford deep ball fall through his grasps. Rahne’s offense actually outgained Kentucky in the first half and had only seven points to show for it. And where to get started on Galiano’s special teams unit?

A fake punt on Penn State’s opening drive was bobbled by Jonathan Thomas and failed to move the sticks. True freshman placekicker Jake Pinegar missed a 40-yard field goal and had a 36-yard attempt blocked. Thompkins lost sight of a punt late in the first quarter, letting it bounce and roll to Penn State’s 3-yard line. Four plays later, Blake Gillikin punted from his own end zone, and the coverage unit let Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden run it back 58 yards untouched for a touchdown.

“Consistency has been an issue all year,” Gillikin said of Penn State’s special teams. “And it showed up today.”

In regards to Galiano’s unit, Franklin said “a deep dive” and “tough conversations” will be necessary in the offseason.

“We’ll ask tough questions to ourselves, and we’ll look at everything,” the head coach added. “We’ll do what we’ve got to do to get better. But it was not up to our standards today. Wasn’t up to our standards all year long.”

Does that mean Galiano’s job is in jeopardy? Who knows? But scroll Twitter or ask a fan at Champs in State College how they feel, and you’ll likely get the same answer.

Something has to be done to correct what the Nittany Lions went through in 2018. Special teams cost Penn State in its 21-17 defeat to Michigan State. Catching the ball was an issue in the one-point loss to Ohio State.

Maybe the drops will be solved with Thompkins’ graduation and Juwan Johnson’s possible early departure for the 2019 NFL draft. Maybe it’s a Corley problem. Or perhaps it was just bad luck. Regardless, redshirt freshman KJ Hamler was adamant after the Citrus Bowl that the drops “won’t happen again.” When asked what led him to believe that’d be the case, he said the same thing: “It won’t happen again.”

Again, it’s a positive step that Penn State is recognizing these issues. It’s hard not to, really.

But Franklin said the drops had to get cleaned up in September. The coach noted that Trace McSorley was shouldering too much of the load running the ball in October, because the passing attack was stagnant. And he expressed concerns over the special teams all year.

These issues didn’t just show up in Florida; Penn State packed them in its suitcase. And now the Nittany Lions are taking them back to State College.