Penn State Football

Dominant defense not translating to wins

Penn State head coach James Franklin has remained upbeat despite the current four-game losing streak. The Nittany Lions will try to end that streak and avenge a rough 2013 loss to Indiana on Saturday.
Penn State head coach James Franklin has remained upbeat despite the current four-game losing streak. The Nittany Lions will try to end that streak and avenge a rough 2013 loss to Indiana on Saturday. CDT photo

Prior to the first question at his weekly news conference, Penn State coach James Franklin felt the need to get something on the record.

“I’m in a great mood,” said Franklin. “The weather is beautiful coming over here. I’m in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, I’m the head football coach at Penn State University, and I work with a group of young men that are unbelievable and have a staff that’s awesome.

“So, I’m in a great mood. Excited about getting out to practice today and getting better and continuing to work with these guys. We’ve got a tremendous opportunity. Myself, the staff, the players are more determined and more optimistic than we’ve ever been.”

Wow.

You can almost envision him slipping on a sweater and singing, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”

While you can appreciate Franklin’s eternal optimism, the neighborhood in Happy Valley hasn’t been so picturesque on Saturday afternoons.

Even Pennsylvania native Fred Rogers would agree on that if he was still around.

The Nittany Lions have lost four straight football games. You can count the number of times that’s happened in the last 50 years on a couple of fingers.

Heading into Saturday’s game at Indiana, it’s been seven weeks since Penn State actually won a game.

And while they know that this is the year that the NCAA sanctions levied in the Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal are hitting the hardest, the natives are still restless.

This is a team that is losing, despite one of the statistically best defenses in program history.

The Nittany Lion defense leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing 77.1 yards per game. It is 23rd in passing yards allowed (196.3), ninth in points allowed (17.8) and third in total defense (273.4 yards per game).

Those are stout numbers that aren’t yielding anything where it counts: the win column.

Of the other teams in the top 20 in total defense, only Pittsburgh (4-5) has a record that’s .500 or lower.

None of the other teams in the top 20 in scoring defense has a .500 or lower record.

The focus obviously has been on the other side of the ball.

Penn State is 106th in scoring (20.1 points per game) and the Nittany Lions have been even worse (15.5 ppg) in their last four games.

Ironically, the Penn State offense is gaining 77.1 yards per game rushing, the same number the defense is giving up. That ranks the Nittany Lions 122nd among 125 FBS teams.

The finger pointing has been toward the offensive line all season, and certainly that is a big part of the problem. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been sacked 30 times and hit probably just as many more. To put that number in perspective, Kerry Collins was sacked five times — for the entire 1994 season.

Yes, the line is bad.

But Franklin and his staff need to take a good, hard look in the mirror, too.

We’ve seen few changes since the start of the season. Even in the press box, we can call out when the bubble screens and draws are coming. And the groans are audible from the stands when Penn State lines up in the wildcat.

Franklin promised some new wrinkles this week. Makes you wonder what they were working on during two bye weeks.

Aside from kicker Sam Ficken, now Mr. Reliable, special teams have cost the Nittany Lions field position, especially last week against Maryland in a 20-19 loss.

That game is indicative of this skid. Penn State found a way to lose a close game, even with the defense playing well.

While Franklin is the eternal optimist, a pessimist would look at this squad and say it is two late drives from being 2-6.

Even with the scholarship hits, this team is more talented than that.

This week the Nittany Lions get a team that’s tailor-made for them.

Indiana is all run and no pass. Freshman Zander Diamont, who replaced injured Nate Sudfeld, has passed for 35 yards in the last two games. Yes, that’s 35 total in two games.

Even wishbone teams from the 1970s passed for more yardage that 17.5 yards per game.

Lose against a team like Indiana and it will be hard to keep that cheery attitude.

And, the neighborhood won’t seem so beautiful.

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