Opinion: Penn State suddenly finds itself with little to play for in pandemic year

More than in any other season we’ve ever seen, the challenge for coaches as this thing drags on is to make sure their players don’t start mentally and emotionally packing it in. 

For teams whose goals and dreams have already been dashed, what’s the motivation? As much as everyone wanted to play college football in 2020, it hasn’t been a picnic. Getting tested for COVID-19 all the time, the annoying precautions in the football building, the sacrifice of social life. And what’s the payoff at the end of the day if you’re not playing for a championship? Heck, you don’t even get the thrill of playing in front of 100,000 fans. 

That’s a real issue in certain programs that lose a few games, and it’s certainly a real issue at Penn State. 

How else do you explain a 35-19 loss to Maryland that dropped the Nittany Lions to 0-3?

Just listen to what Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson told reporters Saturday after the most putrid game of James Franklin’s tenure: “We’re not as one right now. We’re not a unit right now. There’s a lot of different things going on. There’s just distractions that we shouldn’t be focused on right now.” 

While Dotson didn't say exactly what he meant, you can read between the lines. Penn State lost star linebacker Micah Parsons to an opt-out; it lost running back Journey Brown to a medical condition. Then Penn State got gut-punched in the season opener against Indiana, had the misfortune of facing Ohio State the next week and suddenly found itself with little to play for in a pandemic year. Would you be particularly excited to go to work under those circumstances? 

Clearly, the Nittany Lions are not. And the sooner fans don’t have to watch this meltdown, the better, which is why Penn State ranks No. 1 in this week’s Misery Index, a weekly measurement of knee-jerk reactions based on what each fan base just watched.

Penn State coach James Franklin stands with quarterback Sean Clifford (14) and other players during the playing of the alma mater following the loss against Maryland. (Photo: Rich Barnes, USA TODAY Sports)

FOUR MORE IN MISERY

UCLA: The vast majority of UCLA fans likely lost track of Karl Dorrell several years ago. After coaching the Bruins for five mostly mediocre seasons and getting fired in 2007, Dorrell bounced around several NFL staffs with a one-season detour to Vanderbilt as an assistant. There was little reason to believe his name would become relevant again for UCLA, which was supposed to be on its way to the big time when it hired Chip Kelly three years ago. That part hasn’t worked out so far. Kelly is just 7-18, and there’s little reason to believe he’s going to live up to the hype. But the real salt in the wound moment came Saturday, when UCLA was getting embarrassed for a half by a Colorado program that hired Dorrell in February after Mel Tucker bolted for Michigan State. Though UCLA made it competitive at the end, a 48-42 loss to one of its former coaches while Kelly continues to flail is exactly the kind of scenario the Misery Index was built for. 

Virginia Tech: Mistakes happen in football that we sometimes blame coaches for incorrectly, but they simply have to accept responsibility because it’s what they’re paid to do. But then there are gaffes where it’s obvious to the entire world that the coach really screwed up. That’s what happened in the final seconds Saturday, the Hokies tied with Liberty at 35 and facing the prospect of an embarrassing defeat to an upstart program in their own backyard. As the would-be final play unfolded on TV, it appeared that Virginia Tech had blocked Liberty’s longshot attempt at a 59-yard field goal and returned it for a game-winning touchdown. Everyone was celebrating, but Justin Fuente wasn’t. He knew that just a fraction of a second before the snap, he had a called a timeout. Fuente said he did it out of caution, to make sure the right personnel was on the field and not to ice the kicker. Regardless, it gave Liberty another chance. And as the kick went through the uprights, Fuente has a coaching moment he’ll “never get over.” 

Tennessee: It’s not just that the Vols looked so mentally fragile and so physically mismatched during a second-half collapse against Arkansas that turned a 13-0 lead into a 24-13 loss. Tennessee fans have seen that kind of thing plenty of times before. But what’s got to be really galling is how much it stood in contrast to the confidence and toughness displayed by an Arkansas program playing for a first-year coach who inherited a team that hadn’t won an SEC game since 2017. At 2-4, the Vols look completely lost, and with games coming up against Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida, they’re on track for a very bad season. Moreover, they seem to have no clue what their offensive identity is or who should lead them at quarterback as Pruitt cycled through Jarrett Guarantano and Brian Maurer before bizarrely turning to freshman Harrison Bailey midway through the fourth quarter. That didn’t end well either, largely because Pruitt foolishly decided not to kick a 42-yard field goal with 4:32 remaining in the game when it would have closed the gap to just eight points. Instead, Arkansas brought pressure on a fourth down play and Bailey threw an interception. Tennessee is a mess — yet again — and there’s no clear pathway out of it. 

Nebraska: How do you reconcile the idea that Scott Frost’s offense at UCF operated like a wrecking crew, but his offense at Nebraska hasn’t been effective at all? In 2017, Frost’s offense ranked second nationally behind only Oklahoma in yards per play, launching him to his dream job at his alma mater. But since going home, Nebraska has ranked 20th, 72nd and now 20th again in the same statistic. That isn’t progress. Whatever you think of Nebraska’s expectations for its program these days, Year 3 is a big one in figuring out whether the foundation you’ve laid down is solid. By now, you can usually tell whether it’s working. A 21-13 loss to Northwestern in which Nebraska went 4-for-16 on third down and had two good second-half drives end in interceptions suggests it’s not. 

TRENDING TOWARD MISERY

Arizona State: With 4:34 remaining in its season opener and ahead 27-14 on the scoreboard, there was almost no path for the Sun Devils to lose to USC, even if they had tried. But defying all odds, Arizona State somehow failed to stop a fourth-and-13, couldn’t recover an onsides kick, then saw USC score again on fourth-and-9 with 1:20 left to win the game. After playing great defense all day, to have it all fall apart at the end sets an ominous tone for the rest of the season.

Michigan: Not much else needs to be said about the current state of things at Michigan, but we’ll give it a shot anyway. They officially stink. We’ve never had to reckon with that reality before about a Jim Harbaugh team, but here it is: Indiana 38, Michigan 21, in a game that made the Wolverines appear pretty lifeless. How does a program like Michigan run the ball for just 13 yards on 18 attempts? That isn’t acceptable, and it’s not who they should be. Harbaugh has to know that, but there is just no clarity at all about the core identity of what Michigan wants its team to look like. 

South Carolina: We have a nine-year sample size on Will Muschamp as a head coach, and no matter how many times his defenders insist otherwise, he simply is not able to put together a competent offense. Even with that said, Saturday’s 48-3 loss to Texas A&M was almost certainly the low point. The Gamecocks went from bad to unwatchable in gaining just 150 total yards, advancing the ball beyond midfield just three times. With each passing week, the idea of South Carolina swallowing hard and paying the $13.4 million buyout owed to Muschamp becomes more realistic.

Texas Tech: When you’re already under fire from fans — and Matt Wells certainly has been lately with his record slipping to 6-13 — the worst thing you can do is fan the flames with a mind-numbing decision that works out terribly. The Red Raiders were trailing TCU 27-18 when Wells decided with 2:45 remaining to kick a 37-yard field goal on second down and all three timeouts in his pocket. Even if the idea is to cut the deficit to six, then try to get the ball back for a game-winning drive, there’s simply no logic to doing it right then, with that much time left and the ability to stop the clock. And, of course, you risk missing the field goal and giving yourself no chance — which is exactly what happened. 

TOTALLY REAL AND IRRATIONAL MESAGE BOARD THREADS

“We must embrace the suck.” — lions247.com (Penn State)

“Actually playing Liberty in the 1st place is worse than losing to them” — Tech Sideline

“The only fraud in this country is Head Coach at Nebraska” — Husker Online 

“Nuclear option: Peyton Manning as Head Coach” — Vol Nation 

“That field goal decision was the stupidest call in football history” — RedRaiderSports.com

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