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Neil Rudel on Penn State: Long list of issues starts with the O-line

STATE COLLEGE–If you can’t make a yard, you don’t deserve to win.

That old football axiom was on full display Saturday as Penn State’s 41-21 loss to Iowa was unfolding.

With the Nittany Lions down 10-7 in the second quarter, they faced third-and-1 at their 49.

Did they go under center? No.

Did they insert a fullback? Of course not.

They don’t play power football under James Franklin.

As we’ve been told numerous times–through multiple offensive coordinators–Penn State doesn’t use those plays because it doesn’t practice them. It’s committed to a spread offense, for better or worse.

Saturday, and certainly this year during this unthinkable 0-5 start, it was definitely for worse.

On the fateful third-and-1, the braintrust called an option left with quarterback Will Levis (who is righthanded) pitching to freshman Keyvone Lee. The attempt was behind Lee, and Iowa recovered at the Nittany Lions’ 41. Eight plays later, the Hawkeyes went up 17-7.

It gets worse.

Down 17-7 later in the second quarter, the Nits were now at the Iowa 40 on third-and-2. Another freshman running back, Caziah Holmes, was stopped for a 1-yard gain, bringing up fourth-and-1.

Kirk Ciarrocca ordered Levis up the middle, and he was slammed for a 1-yard loss, giving Iowa the ball back.

Then for one of the few times on the day, the Nit defense forced a three-and-out, and the offense got another chance.

What happened? After a great effort by Jahan Dotson to gain 14 yards gave the Nits a(nother) third-and-1 from midfield, Holmes was stuffed for a 1-yard loss, making it fourth-and-2.

Punt here, right? Wrong.

Exasperated with the lack of a short yardage run game–specifically the inept offensive line–Ciarrocca ordered up an ill-fated attempt to Dotson, who was covered. Iowa took over and went 51 yards in 42 seconds to go up 24-7.

Ballgame.

Questioned about the decision, and the play call, Franklin all but admitted his desperation.

“I’m doing everything I possibly can to inject some confidence and some momentum into the offense to try to get us going,” he said. “When you don’t pick it up and they’re able to go down and score, that’s a critical play. It’s not just about the decision. It’s about the execution. We didn’t execute and ended up giving up a big touchdown right before the half.”

Penn State managed a mere 62 yards on 35 carries while allowing five sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

“We’ve got to run the ball when everybody knows you’re going to run the ball,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to be creative when we need to be creative. We got to be better in those situations.”

That’s an understatement.

This is a football team which has failed in every aspect. It has not been prepared or inspired early in games as it’s now being outscored 117-33 in the first half this year.

It repeatedly fails in the clutch–Saturday in short yardage, last week in the red zone at Nebraska–and has no leadership on either side of the ball.

But it has to start up front, and until Penn State figures out its offensive line issues, it really doesn’t matter who plays quarterback.

As the scab is pulled off the 2020 Nittany Lion program, it’s fair to ask how much deeper the cut really is, how profusely the bleeding will continue beyond this season and whether Franklin can find the tourniquet.

Because this sure looks like the team that had College Football Playoff dreams two months ago faces a long road back to respectability.

Penn State’s next two games are at Michigan and at Rutgers, and those who flipped on that game later Saturday night saw two teams that play harder than the Lions and with much more passion, toughness, ingenuity and engagement.

For those who can’t believe you’d ever see a Penn State football team at 0-5, brace yourself: It is going to get worse.

Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached by email at nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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