The excuses are readily available for the spotty play of Penn State's offensive line this season.
There are four new starters. That group includes two redshirt freshmen who never played a down before this year. Also in the mix is a guy who was on the defensive line a year ago.
And injuries in the spring prevented the current starting five from logging significant playing time together until the preseason.
But Herb Hand, the Lions' first-year O-line coach and coordinator of PSU's struggling running game, refuses to use any of the excuses.
I don't temper my expectations of where we should be or where we want to be, he said in a conference call with reporters Thursday morning. We're not there yet, obviously. We've gotten a lot better. Sometimes it probably hard to see, but we have gotten better, and so we don't temper our expectations and standards.
We have standards that we want to play at as a unit because we know the standards that are here at Penn State and we're working hard to achieve those, he added.
An offense once known for a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach under the late Joe Paterno is having trouble doing even that this season. Though 4-1 through five games, the Nittany Lions are averaging a paltry 3.1 yards per carry. In a pair of Big Ten outings, that number dips to 2.0 yards per tote.
PSU enters this week's game at Michigan ranked next to last in the Big Ten and 113th in the nation in rushing offense (101.0 ypg). The Lions have also allowed the second-most sacks in the conference (14).
Hand is not asking for or expecting any sympathy from frustrated fans.
At this point in the season, there are no more rookies, Hand said. Guys have played in games. There's no more of that stuff. Nobody cares about that stuff, anyway, to be honest with you. I've told the guys that from the get go. Nobody cares that we've had to replace four guys, nobody cares that we've had inexperience, nobody cares that some guys were playing defense. Nobody cares if you're banged up, bruised up.
What they want to see is results, he added. That's what we're striving for and working hard for.
“Nobody cares that we’ve had to replace four guys, nobody cares that we’ve had inexperience, nobody cares that some guys were playing defense. Nobody cares if you’re banged up, bruised up. What they want to see is results.”
He hopes to begin seeing some results in Ann Arbor this weekend, for a couple of reasons.
The first is that Penn State is coming off a bye, and the offensive linemen were able to use the extra time to get healthy, watch a lot of film and work on technique. It also allowed the staff to take a step back and gain some perspective.
Hand said when watching film, there was noticeable improvement on the line from the preseason through the fifth game, things that were not necessarily evident during the day-in, day-out grind prior to the bye. At the same time, there was plenty to fix.
What we did during the bye week as coaches (was) a lot of self scout, Hand said, and get into what we were able to accomplish during the first five games and what we need to get better at -- some things that have worked, some things that haven't worked, why weren't they working, and what are the issues we have to focus on correcting.
Then there was the 29-6 loss to Northwestern heading into the bye. Up until that point, Penn State had been masking its O-line problems with smoke and mirrors. But everything came undone in the defeat, for the entire offense.
If you look at the way the season has gone, we've had some underlying issues that we've been able to overcome in other games, Hand said, either by winning a situation like a two-minute drill or just by grinding things out, that we weren't able to overcome in the last game. So sometimes, you have to learn the hard way. Learning the easy way is learning from a victory.
But you have to learn either way, he added. Sometimes you take a shot in the chin and you have to learn from that.
Head coach James Franklin lauded the line for staying positive, even when times have been tough and fan criticism has been loud.
I think they've handled it pretty well, I really do, Franklin said. What happens on most football teams is, there's always noise outside. I think what really matters is how we interact with one another in meetings. They know how we feel about 'em. I know how hard they're working, and what they're putting into this. They want to play as well as anybody else. And I do see them getting better. Is it as fast as we would all like? Probably not. But you can say that about a lot of positions.
Hand is only focused on one position. And he touched on another element that is working in his line's favor.
I'll tell you, the work ethic of this group is tremendous, he said. Hard work doesn't guarantee success, but without hard work you have no shot. You have no chance if you don't bring the work ethic. These guys work.
When is that going to come to fruition for us? he added. Hopefully sooner rather than later. But it is a process and guys are working hard to play up to the standard they've set for themselves.