No. 18 Penn St., Indiana seeking to rebound from struggles
Penn State coach James Franklin is all too familiar with this week’s daunting scenario.
He watched the Nittany Lions’ conference title hopes and playoff possibilities slip away with back-to-back road losses last October. Two early losses during a three-week stretch in 2016 kept the eventual Big Ten champs out of the playoffs. In 2014, a four-game midseason losing streak prevented Penn State from reaching a major bowl game.
Now, No. 18 Penn State heads to Indiana, hoping to turn things around again after losing two straight home games.
“What happens is, in any organization, with any CEO, with any team, there are typically three steps forward and one step back and that step back is painful and you’ve got to learn from it,” Franklin said. “You’ve got to grow and you’ve got to evolve and you’ve got to get better. That’s what we’re going to do.”
But the long road back this time could be far more challenging.
First, the Nittany Lions (4-2, 1-2) have less experience than previous years.
Plus, when the previous stumbles started on road trips, allowing them to rebound at home. This time, they’ve lost two straight in State College and the Nittany Lions are now forced to solve their problems Saturday on the road — at Indiana.
One problem: The Hoosiers (4-3, 1-3) also are attempting to snap a two-game skid following their worst game of the season, and coach Tom Allen could be throwing Penn State a curve ball.
“I want to push the envelope in both tempo and creating bigger plays, trying to get our guys in position,” Allen said when asked if he anticipated the offense being more aggressive this weekend. “You’ve got to be able to find creative ways of trying to do that. To me, it’s learning to push the envelope. I’m going to continue to talk through that, want to see it happen. I want to see us be able to put pressure on the defense.”
That’s not something Franklin needed to hear from a coach who has a defensive mindset and has proven the last two years he could hold Penn State’s ground game in check.
But if Penn State’s players learned anything from the past, it’s that they need to focus on fixing their own flaws.
“Ultimately, we’ve got to get better. I mean, we can’t live in the past,” linebacker Koa Farmer said. “Things need to be corrected from the last two games, and I just think we have to get better from here on out.”
Allen was brutally honest about last week’s performance by starting quarterback, sophomore Peyton Ramsey.
“I don’t think he played very well during the game. We’re not bashful about saying those kind of things. We’ve praised him when he has played well. He didn’t play his best game,” Allen said Monday.
Allen later reiterated Ramsey will remain the starter but acknowledged he would consider giving highly touted true freshman Michael Penix Jr. more playing time the rest of this season.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley is the only player ranked among the Big Ten’s rushing and passing leaders.
Last week, though, the Spartans limited McSorley to 37 yards on 13 carries and 192 yards passing and one touchdown. This week, Penn State needs McSorley to re-emerge as a dual threat.
“If you look over the last three years, his running comes as a byproduct of how well we are throwing the ball,” Franklin said. “You’re running the ball, you’re throwing the ball and now Trace is able to hurt you for a couple runs a game and that’s when we are our most dangerous on the offensive side.”
Indiana has lost 20 of 21 games all-time against Penn State and still has not beaten Franklin.
How bad has it been?
Consider the Nittany Lions average victory margin is 17.1 points and Penn State has scored 90 points over the past two seasons.
Allen joked this week that when he looked at the game tapes, he thought Saquon Barkley was still playing for the Nittany Lions.
In some ways, it’s hard to tell a difference between Barkley and Miles Sanders. Through six games, Sanders has rushed for 700 yards and seven TDs. He averages 6.7 yards per carry and 116.7 yards per game.
“You’ve seen the past two years, the sparks he’s had and now he’s finally being able to show what he truly is,” offensive lineman Connor McGovern said. “He’s just able to ignite the field.”