For the nine months that followed Penn State’s thrilling 31-30 victory over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, hope and optimism for both the near- and long-term success of the program reigned supreme. How could it not have?
Success on the recruiting trail the likes of which had not been seen since Joe Paterno’s heyday was filling the Lasch Building with the kind of size, strength, speed and athleticism that allows you to compete with the college football elite. James Franklin and his coaches always seemed to know exactly what to say, no matter the audience or the question. Christian Hackenberg would surely build on his excellent bowl performance and use the 2015 season as a launching pad to a promising NFL career. Bob Shoop spurned LSU in favor of staying at Penn State, and the mastermind behind the unit ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense a year ago had even more toys at his disposal this year with talented true and redshirt freshmen adding to an already deep group.
Sure, the offensive line was still a concern, but the four returning starters had a year of experience and a deep-seated desire to erase the memories of their 2014 performance. Even the schedule-makers seemed to be on Penn State’s side, providing an opening six-game stretch that would allow the new faces to get comfortable while still allowing the Nittany Lions to cruise to a 6-0 start before heading to Columbus in mid-October. Nine wins seemed likely, with 10 not a far-fetched scenario.
Saturday’s 27-10 debacle at the hands of Temple in Philadelphia brought all of that to a screeching halt. Nine months of hope and optimism? Gone. The good will that Franklin had so skillfully built with the alumni, fans and media since he arrived in January 2014? Vanished.
What follows is a series of questions that I thought had already been answered back in January but deserve to be revisited in light of what happened on Saturday.
Question 1: Were Bill O’Brien and his assistant coaches good recruiters?
Answer Then: An emphatic yes.
O’Brien’s recruiting classes finished 44th and 25th respectively, both averaging over three stars per recruit. Given the crippling sanctions that the coaching staff was forced to deal with, the recruiting results were nothing short of remarkable.
Answer Now: Still a yes under the circumstances.
Those recruiting classes have provided a number of significant contributors including Hackenberg and DaeSean Hamilton, but the glaring problem is on the offensive line. Andrew Nelson looks like a keeper, but the other O’Brien offensive line recruits (Noah Beh, Chasz Wright) have not made a push for playing time.
The sheer lack of numbers there is mostly intentional. O’Brien had to make difficult choices about what positions to emphasize given the lack of scholarships available. He chose to beef up the secondary and skill positions due to lack of quality depth in those areas and bank on developing the nearly 20 linemen already in the program. The results of that experiment have been less than satisfactory.
Question 2: Will the offensive line improve enough to allow the skill position talent to shine?
Answer Then: How could it be any worse?
Seriously though, another year in the strength and conditioning program, a spring practice and a full summer working together was expected to make the offensive line good enough to allow the offense to function the way it was meant to.
Answer Now: A definite no, with the caveat that it’s only game one.
Ten sacks and less than 200 yards of total offense against Temple have the fans cursing and the coaches scrambling for solutions. Cohesion and communication were huge problems last season, and the first game of 2015 did not show any discernible improvement. Temple found ways to get pressure whether or not it blitzed. The line has to make a giant leap forward over the next five home games to give any reason to expect the conference schedule to result in a .500 record or better.
Question 3: Can Christian Hackenberg thrive in John Donovan’s offensive scheme?
Answer Then: The Pinstripe Bowl seemed to offer a resounding “yes” to this question as Hack threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns in the victory, looking totally in command in the process. Year two in the scheme was expected to bring new freedom for Hackenberg to shift line protections and change plays at the line of scrimmage.
Answer Now: Maybe not.
Hackenberg suffered through one of the worst performances of his college career against Temple. In addition to being sacked 10 times, he misfired regularly when he did have time to throw. It all added up to a humiliating afternoon for a quarterback expected to be a top 10 draft pick next April. The incendiary reaction from family members on Twitter afterward toward Hackenberg’s coaches didn’t help matters.
Question 4: Is John Donovan a capable offensive coordinator?
Answer Then: Incomplete, but with hope of a yes.
It was difficult to evaluate Donovan’s 2014 performance in light of the immense struggles on the offensive line. What can you call when the line can’t open running lanes and can’t protect the quarterback? The Pinstripe Bowl offered hope for the future as the Lions threw and ran the ball effectively against Boston College.
Answer Now: Still incomplete, but trending toward no.
Again, it’s difficult to truly evaluate an offensive coordinator when the offensive line implodes. However, there were some very disturbing signs in the Temple game, including a staunch refusal to throw the ball more than 10 yards down the field, getting away from the running game despite it being relatively effective (8.5 yards per carry when you take out the sack yardage), continuing to call the jet sweep well after Temple had made an adjustment to stop it and having Hackenberg run read-option plays when everyone in the stadium knew he was no threat to keep the ball.
Donovan can’t allow the struggles up front to totally neutralize the deep talent at the skill positions. He has to come up with ways for the offense to move the ball effectively.
Question 5: Who will be the middle linebacker?
Answer Then: Nyeem Wartman-White
Wartman-White was moved inside as soon as the offseason began and, by all accounts, he was handling his new responsibilities very well. Those insider accounts seemed to be validated in the early going against Temple as the Owls couldn’t do anything offensively while Wartman-White was out there.
Answer Now: Unknown
The season-ending knee injury suffered by Wartman-White, followed quickly by injuries to Gary Wooten and Brandon Bell, has thrown the linebacker corps into chaos. Wooten did not look comfortable in the middle prior to his injury, leaving Bob Shoop to start shuffling personnel. A reasonable solution would be to slide 240-pound Jason Cabinda inside to the middle and have Troy Reeder step into Cabinda’s vacated strong side backer spot. Jake Cooper and Manny Bowen had to burn their redshirts in the injury carnage Saturday, so Shoop and Brent Pry have to figure out ways to give them a taste of success to build upon.
Question 6: Is James Franklin the right man to lead Penn State back to prominence?
Answer Then: Absolutely, positively, 100 percent yes. From recruiting to building up a lot of goodwill with former players, alumni and fans to winning a bowl game, Franklin could do no wrong in his first season in Happy Valley. The future looked so bright, fans were openly wondering if 2016 would be the first year Penn State made an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Answer Now: Still yes, but…
Franklin is a CEO-style head coach, choosing to focus on the big picture issue while delegating most of the coaching duties to his assistants. This makes sense and it works at places like Alabama and Ohio State. The key is having assistants who are not only great recruiters — which I think it’s safe to say the PSU assistants are — but also great at coaching and developing the talent they recruit. This is where the jury is still out, and an answer in the negative will sabotage Franklin’s Penn State career.
The offensive line showed no improvement over last year, shining a harsh spotlight on Herb Hand. The offensive scheme was rendered inept in every way, putting more heat on Donovan. Franklin needs more from these assistants, especially if he wants the 2015 season to be another step on the road to greatness.
Franklin is tremendously loyal to his assistants. He will have to show he’s willing to make difficult choices for the betterment of the program if things do not improve significantly over the rest of this season. In addition, he is going to have to win back the hard-won support of former players (see the Twitter reaction of players like Donovan Smith, Adam Gress and Stephon Morris) and the fans.
The sanctions are over and so is the time for using them as a crutch. Losing to Temple would not have been acceptable during the sanction years nor any other time. Not just losing, but being steamrolled by the Owls, has thrown everything we thought we knew about the Penn State football program into doubt.
It’s up to the coaches and players to rally around each other and respond in a positive way the rest of the season.