STATE COLLEGE - Maryland tore through the decaying husk of Penn State’s team and its season Saturday, stunning the Nittany Lions 35-19 at Beaver Stadium.
It wasn’t that close. It wasn’t close to being that close. It was surely the nadir of the James Franklin Era. In its wake, it’s not unreasonable to question the program’s long- and short-term future.
That’s how bad this was, and how unsalvagable this truncated season now is.
“We weren’t competitive early on,’’ head coach James Franklin said afterward. “We didn’t play well in any area.’’
The Nittany Lions, 0-3 for the first time in 19 years, have now lost a game they should have won (at Indiana), competed respectably in a game they surely couldn’t have won (Ohio State) and, Saturday, free-fell through a black hole in space.
Maryland, now 3-40-1 all-time against the Lions, was a 27.5-point underdog. The last time Penn State lost as even a three-touchdown favorite, the coach was Joe Paterno.
The last two seasons, Penn State beat Maryland by a combined 97-3.
“I don’t think we’ve underestimated anybody,’’ Franklin said. “When you haven’t been successful the first couple weeks, you don’t underestimate anybody.’’
Further, Franklin said he didn’t see this coming.
“I can understand why you’d ask that,’’ he said. “Usually, during the week is what you can that, and there were no signs of that.’’
The Terps got a brilliant game from quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa. Penn State got a face-plant from its pass defense, which was expected to be good in 2020 and, before Saturday, showed promise.
That combination of elements yielded numbers for Tagovailoa that his big brother, Tua, of Alabama and Miami Dolphins fame, might envy: 14 for 19 passing for 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions before halftime, after which it was over.
There’s plenty of wreckage to pick through.
This Penn State offensive line, with four starters and 85 combined career starts returning, was supposed to be the one, the culmination of years of building depth and developing talent. It got whipped in the trenches for three-and-a-half hours Saturday by a Maryland defensive front that had yielded 587 rushing yards to Northwestern and Minnesota.
Penn State ran for 94 yards, 2.6 per carry. Quarterback Sean Clifford was sacked seven times.
“We’ve got to get the run game going,’’ Franklin said. “Everything builds on that. It continues to be a problem.’’
Although the outcome was not in doubt for long, there was a decision to raise questions about game management, because that’s just how we roll ‘round these parts.
The Lions were down just 7-0, in the middle of the first quarter, when the offense faced a fourth-down-and-three at the Maryland 7.
Franklin went for it, eschewing a chip-shot field goal. Again, it’s only 7-0, and it’s only the first quarter.
The fourth-down play was a deep fade route, to the far corner of the end zone, Clifford to freshman wide receiver Parker Washington. Not even close.
It’s far too early for anything like a verdict on new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, of course. But to the extent that he’s shown any characteristic three games into his tenure, it’s an affection low-percentage pass routes.
Ironically, the pass-catchers, presumed before the season to be a weakness, were a relative bright spot Saturday. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson - Penn State’s clear best player so far - had nine catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. Washington (again, a true freshman,) had 8 for 70 and two TDs.
No question, this season would have been different if Penn State had been able to ease into it with non-league opponents, or if they’d gone into Saturday with enough season left to salvage an 0-2 start.
That’s the same for everybody, of course, just the absurd reality of 2020.
But no one in the sport had underachieved more than Penn State has. Franklin’s constant, “be 1-0 this week,’’ drumbeat, while logically sound, now seems like a tiny echo in a vast echo chamber.
So what’s the alternative? Does he make personnel changes? A youth movement? Does he revive the infamous, “the boats are burning!’’ speech from his Vanderbilt days?
On to Nebraska? OK. Let’s go with that.