Lions play like they’re afraid of heights
EAST LANSING, Mich. — Just eight days ago, Penn State, ranked No. 2 for the first time since 1999, stood in the rarified air of the college football world and allowed itself to take a long, deep breath from the same mountaintop as Alabama.
And man was it exhilarating — while it lasted.
Apparently, the Nittany Lions got a little dizzy up there, and when they took a glimpse of everybody and everything underneath them, sure enough: They lost their footing.
While last week’s one-point loss in Columbus was stunning, Saturday’s 27-24 gut punch by Michigan State as time expired provided a cold slap in the face and reinforced what many coaches have long believed — that it’s easier to climb to the top than it is to stay there.
James Franklin credited the Spartans for the physical aspects with which they won the game — by protecting savvy quarterback Brian Lewerke, by becoming the latest team to shut down Penn State’s meek running game and by winning the battles of field position and turnovers.
That a bizarre lightning delay at Spartan Stadium extended the torture, turning a game that took 3:35 into a real-time exercise that wound up just two minutes shy of seven hours (6:58), only compounded the Lions’ frustration.
James Franklin didn’t use the delay as an excuse, because both teams had to deal with it, but he was openly critical of his team’s mental approach.
“I would call us a young program in terms of the conversations we’ve been part of for the past year, and we’re not mature enough to handle that,” he said. “We’re going to get back to our formula, which works, and not talking about anything else.”
He listed “respecting our opponent” as one of his concerns, and it was clear in his mind that the Lions did not deal well with the aftermath of their devastating loss in Columbus.
“I think there’s a lot of noise that we try to manage,” he said. “When things are going well, there’s a lot of positivity, a lot of patting on the back. (But) When you lose the game, it’s the complete opposite, and it couldn’t be more negative.”
Franklin plans to encourage his players to stay off their phones, the Internet, and avoid reading newspapers and paying attention to other media, including watching ESPN and the Big Ten Network, both Penn State partners that he named.
All of that said, he admitted it’s an impossible task.
“You have to make sure you’re talking about it and addressing it, and when conversations go in directions they shouldn’t, you cut it out,” he said. “We’re going to get back to that.”
The players sensed they dropped their guard.
“We let outside things affect us,” linebacker Koa Farmer said. “We were so focused on being up there (ranked) with the big guys.”
Franklin plans to return to the mantra that he pledged when he arrived at Penn State.
Which is, he said again Saturday, “Do a back handspring out of bed and attack the day,” and then “get into the submarine and tune everything else out.”
That makes sense, especially since there’s probably not enough room in a submarine to do a back handspring without hitting your head.
Regardless, no matter how they got it, the Lions have a headache after surrendering a fourth-quarter lead for the second time in two weeks.
Following the 39-38 loss to Ohio State, Franklin apologized, sensing how badly the Nittany Nation could taste that victory.
This time was different. This time, he took aim at everyone around him.
“We are going to make sure if there’s any gray area whatsoever with our coaches, with our players and anybody else … and that’s being 1-0 each week, and everything else will take care of itself,” he said. “I want to make sure everybody in our building is crystal clear on that.”
Penn State has great leaders, like DaeSean Hamilton, on this team. But even he admitted the overwhelming amount of public attention — positive and negative — can be challenging.
“Being on top of the world and now losing two games,” Hamilton said. “We didn’t go around talking about it, but it’s hard to keep it out of the locker room, including myself.”
“We’ve never been as highly ranked as this,” fellow receiver DeAndre Thompkins said. “We talked about putting that in the rear-view mirror. As a team, we have to have a singleness of purpose.”
Then he added, “Nobody can be off in a wonderland.”
Presuming they can right the ship and win three straight against the softest portion of the schedule, beginning Saturday against Rutgers, the Lions can still finish 10-2 and go to an attractive bowl game.
But 2017 has taken a sudden and disappointing turn and is shaping up as a missed opportunity.
At the same time, it’s also underscoring that when you go on the road in the Big Ten — as Michigan State and Iowa reminded us on Saturday — there are very few automatic wins.
Franklin will leave the analysis to everyone outside his locker room.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “Everybody else can talk about it — the fans, the community, the national people. We’re not going to. We’re getting back to our routine.”
That shouldn’t be difficult to do because the noise that bothered the Nittany Lions for the past two weeks has been reduced to a whisper.
Rudel can be reached at (814) 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.