STATE COLLEGE — This is an answer one might expect given all the evidence to support it, given the gregarious young player who received the direct question, and with the understanding of how big a part of Penn State’s offense he is. But when asked what he has learned about the Nittany Lions through three games so far this season, receiver K.J. Hamler didn’t hesitate to offer a precise and convincing two-word response.
“We’re electrifying,” the redshirt freshman dynamo said, his eyes widening.
There’s not going to be any debating that here. But there is going to be a strict examination of the similarly obvious counterpoint: With this electrifying team, the power has tended to go out from time to time.
It did it for a few quarters against Appalachian State, in a game these Nittany Lions were lucky to win. It did for most of the first half last week in Pittsburgh. And even in the Nittany Lions’ otherwise complete domination of Kent State, 63-10, at Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon, there was plenty of ammunition for the detractors who insist things will be different once the Big Ten’s big boys come to town.
Which brings up an interesting question: Can Penn State’s raw brilliance overcome its propensity to make the dumbest mistakes, at the worst possible times?
So far, it has. The Nittany Lions have outscored the Mountaineers, Panthers and Golden Flashes, 159-54, this season. Against Kent State, the offense ripped off a whopping 643 total yards, and head coach James Franklin sat at the dais for his postgame press conference and basically talked for 10 minutes about how that number could have been better. Should have been better. And will have to be better. It would almost be viewed as audacious if it weren’t, well, true.
“What we’re looking for is what every team in the country is striving for, and that’s consistency,” Franklin said. “There are times when we look like a Super Bowl team, and there are flashes of really good things. Then there are other times where we’re hurting ourselves and the opponent had nothing to do with it. We can’t do that.”
Not against Ohio State. Not against Wisconsin. Not against Michigan. Not against Michigan State. That’s Penn State’s measuring stick now.
Against those teams, what happened on Kent State’s touchdown drive would change a game. An offside penalty called on defensive end Shareef Miller extended a drive. Six plays later, on a fourth-and-5, defensive tackle Robert Windsor jumped early. The Golden Flashes got their first down, then scored on a 47-yard touchdown pass.
Repeated penalties hurt the Nittany Lions on offense, too.
A holding penalty on center Michal Menet negated what would have been a 56-yard touchdown pass to Hamler in the first quarter. In the second quarter, freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth picked a defender away from Juwan Johnson, who scored a 24-yard touchdown on the play. Then, for good measure, freshman guard C.J. Thorpe tackled a defensive lineman on a 66-yard touchdown pass from McSorley to freshman Cameron Sullivan-Brown.
The Nittany Lions went on to find the end zone despite the Thorpe hold. The first two drives wound up in punts. That’s 14 points off the board.
Thing is, Franklin sounded almost secretly happy all that happened in a game like this. He likened the victory to a stick of deodorant that covers up some things on tape that, come time to review the film, are going to smell bad. It’s a catchy metaphor, for sure. But Penn State needs to take it to heart.
“Here’s the deal: You don’t have to lose a game to get a wake-up call and figure things out. That’s a common misconception,” Franklin said. “In some ways, I’ll be honest with you, I coach them harder after a win, because in a lot of ways emotionally, they’re more prepared for that. After the losses, you want to be careful you don’t beat them up too much.
“We don’t want to get to the point where winning is the expectation and losing kills you. … But there is tremendous growth that needs to happen from this game, and we shouldn’t have to go through a situation where we have a setback or suffer a loss, because the reality is the mistakes are there.”
Safety and captain Nick Scott concurred that adjustments need to be made.
Those first few practices after wins are typically a bit different than ones after losses under Franklin, he said. They’re more positive, and more importantly, more honest.
“People get spoiled sometimes because this is such a talented team, and those things get overlooked,” Scott said. “Today was on the sloppy side for us. It starts with discipline.
“Practice gets really tough, and it’s really detail-oriented. The coaches, myself and the other captains and leaders on our team are definitely going to make sure all the guys are held accountable on the little things. How we leave the locker room. Getting to meetings on time. Lineman assignments. If we can attack those areas, we’ll get better and avoid sloppy days.”
This is a team that has played two games in steady rain, that has played 15 true freshmen — many for meaningful minutes — and has played many more seeing their first significant game action. Those are excuses, sure. But they could also be considered legitimate reasons for play that hasn’t always been tight.
But as junior linebacker Cam Brown said, “We can’t just chalk this up to being young anymore. … It’s just guys messing up. It’s about making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The thing about Penn State is that it has overcome what Franklin calls “the funk” he’ll smell off the game tape with alacrity, with a scary electricity and with talent oozing off the sidelines. It has been good enough when it has had to be to set Penn State’s sites even higher as Big Ten play starts this week, and they know what they’ve done so far — with all its warts — has been good enough.
They’re so talented, it might even be good enough for the big boys.
They just don’t want to find out.