Penn State Football needs to develop resiliency if they ever want to reach the pinnacle.
A crucial year in the James Franklin era is upon us.
Franklin has certainly had success in his nine years at the helm of Penn State Football. But, many long for the days of the 70s,80s, and 90s where the Nittany Lions were perennial contenders on a national level.
Arriving at Penn State with the university still feeling the fallout of scandal, Franklin kept the program afloat in 2014-15 going 7-6 both seasons. The 2016-19 stretch saw the Lions take a massive leap going 42-11 and winning a Big Ten championship as well as appearing in a pair of New Year’s Six Bowl games.
The Nittany Lions finished in the AP Top-10 three times finishing seventh in 2016, eighth in 2017, and ninth in 2019.
Even the past two seasons have had Penn State Football ranked as high as No. 7 in 2020 and No. 4 in 2021, before sputtering down the stretch to finish 4-5 and 7-6, respectively.
The discussion of many is what it is going to take not only for Penn State Football to return to the top-10 form of a few seasons ago, but also to break through that proverbial ceiling and reach the College Football Playoff.
How James Franklin, Penn State Football return to glory
The key to a turnaround for a season starts by how Penn State Football responds to a loss.
Just last season, the Nittany Lions jumped out to a blazing start defeating No. 12 Wisconsin on the road, and No. 22 Auburn at home to find themselves jumping from preseason AP No. 19 to No. 4 in just four short weeks.
Then, disaster struck.
Facing off against No. 3 Iowa, the Nittany Lions Jumped out to a 17-3 lead before quarterback Sean Clifford was injured and the world was introduced to Ta’Quan Roberson.
It was clear immediately that the Nittany Lions did not have a prepared backup and could only muster up even three points for the remaining 42 minutes of game action, ultimately losing a 23-20 heartbreaker to the Hawkeyes.
Despite the pain of watching a seemingly unpreparedness of the quarterback position behind Clifford, what happened for the rest of the season is a disturbing trend that has happened since the Nittany Lions have become more nationally relevant under Franklin.
The following week, Penn State Football only dropped to No. 7 in the polls but lost in gut wrenching fashion to a terrible Illinois team at home and thus started the spiral of the 2021 season. The Nittany Lions would go on to finish 2-5 down the stretch after that 5-0 start and once again fail to make a New Year’s Six bowl game for the second year in a row.
This struggle to recover after a loss isn’t just unique to the 2021 season, in 2020 the Nittany Lions started the year ranked No. 8 before losing a heartbreaker to Indiana in the first game and going on to drop 5 straight games. Penn State Football figured it out a little bit down the stretch and finished 4-5 during the covid shortened season, but at that point the damage was already done.
One could give a pass for the covid season as it was a weird year without fans and a conference only schedule. It is important to point out that despite the stress of playing through the pandemic, the Nittany Lions were still the more talented team in most of their losses.
Looking back to 2017 and 2018 is where we can trace the origins of this intriguing trend.
In those years, the Nittany Lions started 7-0 and 4-0 respectively only to lose back-to-back heartbreakers to Ohio State and Michigan State. Both years, both games the Nittany Lions appeared to be the better team only to lose late from a lack of execution both in time management and ball security. I
n 2019 Penn State Football started 8-0 before being upset by Minnesota and losing two weeks later to a great Ohio State team on the road so there wasn’t much fault there.
What will need to change for Penn State Football in 2022?
There are plenty of depth chart decisions and x’s and o’s that will certainly need to be figured out as the season progresses and will certainly be addressed in the upcoming weeks.
What needs to be addressed on a macro level is the absence of rebound for the team when they lose that first game, whether it is in Week 1 at Purdue, or mid-season on the road against Michigan.
Franklin’s teams have started fast in previous seasons, which is part of the reason why they have been ranked in the AP top-10 at some point every year since 2016. While many will look to see if the Nittany Lions can improve their overall record, what really should be evaluated is whether the coaches are able to rally the team when the going gets tough.
A trend takes years to develop and maybe the same can be said about breaking one. The key is making sure to reverse it in time before it becomes your identity.
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