From the outside, at least, it appears pretty simple. From that vantage point, it appears that the next two weeks are pivotal for Penn State.
Beat Minnesota and Maryland, both at home, and bowl eligibility seems far more likely. Lose both, and the season could very well spiral out of control, with tough games against Ohio State and Michigan State still looming.
You have your view, James Franklin has his.
“I’ve never thought like that, ever, as a coach in this profession, or a player,” the Nittany Lions’ coach said on the Big Ten conference call Tuesday. “Our focus is on Minnesota.”
As well it should be, given the fact that the Gophers bring a 3-0 record into Saturday’s game (which is their conference opener), and the fact that the Nittany Lions, 2-2 after Saturday’s humiliating 49-10 loss at Michigan, are so banged up.
But tight end Mike Gesicki saw some validity in the premise.
“I do agree that you have to take one week at a time,” he said during a conference call with reporters, “but I also agree that these next two weeks are huge for our program and huge for where the season will take us. I think that we all understand that, and that we all see the big picture.”
He then added that he and his teammates have zeroed in on the task at hand, that the players are, like Franklin, excited for Saturday’s game, excited to be back home, etc.
Bouncing back from devastating losses has become commonplace for the Lions the last two years. Seven games into the 2015 campaign Ohio State hung a 38-10 defeat on them, but PSU beat Maryland and Illinois the next two weeks, before closing out the regular season with three straight losses.
The last of those was a 55-16 beat-down at Michigan State. Over a month later the Lions fell into a 21-point hole against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and lost quarterback Christian Hackenberg to a shoulder injury late in the first half. Trace McSorley came on to throw two late touchdown passes, but Penn State lost, 24-17.
So now it seems fair to wonder how those experiences informed how the Lions will react now.
“I feel like the thing is, you can’t get used to that stuff,” Gesicki said. “You can’t have something like that happen and be like, ‘Oh, we went through this last year, too.’ It’s not OK. The guys on this team don’t think it’s OK. The coaches don’t think it’s OK. We don’t think it’s OK.”
He said everybody learned from last year’s routs, and that indeed they have tried to learn from Saturday’s loss in Ann Arbor.
“But I think that the thing you need to take from that loss is not looking in the past and saying, ‘Oh yeah, well it happened it last year this and that time,’ ” he added. “I think the thing that has to happen is, you need to say, ‘It’s not OK and it’s not going to happen again,’ rather than look back and say, ‘We can learn from it, just like we did last year.’ ”
The spirit might be willing, but the roster is thin. Franklin said he hopes to have injured linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda back “sooner, rather than later,” but at present the expectation is that freshman Cam Brown will make his first collegiate start at weak-side linebacker Saturday, with Brandon Smith in the middle and Manny Bowen on the strong side.
All three began the season, of course, as backups.
This week’s depth chart also lists a new first-stringer on the offensive line – freshman Connor McGovern at right guard in place of Derek Dowrey, who started the first four games. This comes in the wake of another tough day against the Wolverines, a day in which the Lions managed just 191 yards (to Michigan’s 515).
Gesicki, PSU’s second-leading receiver this season with 14 catches, had his issues as a blocker as well.
“I think I have blocked much better than I have in the past,” he said. “Still have room to improve. I think I can improve on getting my hands inside (the frame of the defender) on every single fit. … That’s going to be a huge focal point for myself going forward – just getting my hands inside – because that’s something that is a huge advantage.”
All part of a bigger picture, which figures to come into sharper focus the next two weeks.null