STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Hangovers? That was apparently something for the folks in the Beaver Stadium parking lots to worry about. Penn State coach James Franklin wasn’t interested in discussing whether his team might have been in the throes of one Saturday afternoon, when it started slowly and then slogged to a workmanlike 35-6 homecoming victory over Rutgers (see observations).
Never mind that the 14th-ranked Lions were coming off back-to-back gut-punch losses, at Ohio State and Michigan State. Never mind that the season’s course appears to be set, that there is a certain resignation about what this outfit, now 8-2, might be able to accomplish.
He was more interested in recalibrating everybody’s sights, making them understand there is still much that can be salvaged, even if a return trip to the Big Ten championship game is a long shot, a berth in the College Football Playoff a near impossibility.
“I think,” he began, “we made progress, and we were able to get a fairly convincing win against a program on the rise.”
Well, yeah, kinda. Rutgers came in with three victories in its last four games and overall has won twice as often as it had while going 2-10 last year. Then the Scarlet Knights moved to a 6-0 lead after a quarter, in part because none of the Lions elected to field the opening kickoff, before PSU yawned, stretched and made its appointed rounds.
Trace McSorley threw for two touchdowns and ran for one. Saquon Barkley, limited to a season-low 35 yards on the ground, nonetheless rushed for two TDs of his own. And later he addressed the season’s expectations, as opposed to the grim realities.
“I visualized going undefeated,” he said. “I visualized everything. But you only get to control what you can control.”
And the games in Columbus and East Lansing slipped through their fingers, in large part because they are lacking on both lines — Franklin went so far as to call their offense “too finesse” after the MSU loss — but also because of a blocked punt here, a roughing-the-passer penalty there, and few dozen completions by J.T. Barrett and Brian Lewerke.
Tough to adjust one’s focus after all that. But outwardly, at least, they are being brave in the attempt.
“We’re 8-2 right now,” Barkley said. “We hold ourselves to such a high standard that everyone thinks this is a bad season. There’s multiple teams that would beg and wish and dream to be in the position we are.”
A 10-2 regular-season finish is still possible. So too is a berth in a New Year’s Day bowl. Scant consolation, maybe, since the Lions were No. 2 in the country heading into the Ohio State game, but consolation nonetheless.
“We’re 8-2, top 15 team in the country,” Barkley said again, “and everyone’s like the season’s going to crap, which realistically it’s not. We all wanted to have an undefeated season, but we didn’t. We lost two games. But now that’s all behind us. All you can really focus on is the last three games that we have and (go about) doing what you can do to win those games.”
No surprise, then, that Barkley fended off questions about his immediate and long-term future — that he would say neither whether he planned to declare for the draft (as expected) nor whether he planned to sit out the bowl game, as two NFL-bound backs, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, did a year ago.
That’s a discussion for another time, he said, in both cases. More pressing now is whether the Lions can ever knock anybody off the ball. Barkley, working behind a line minus injured tackle Ryan Bates for the second straight week, found little traction against Rutgers. And over the last three weeks, he has managed 141 yards on 49 carries, while seeing his Heisman chances evaporate.
Time and again Franklin has said his team needs to be more physical — on both sides of the ball, but particularly on offense. And when asked whether any strides had been made in that regard Saturday, he didn’t exactly offer a ringing endorsement.
“I think a little bit,” he said, “but I still think that’s an area that we can get better in.”
Barkley’s take on Franklin’s week-old assessment?
“‘Finesse’ means we’re trying to be too flashy and got to grind out the yards and be a little more gritty,” he said. “That’s what I think of when I think ‘finesse.’ ”
He too thought some progress had been made. Baby steps, anyway.
Same for the recalibration process, the resetting of goals. One would think, after all, that the hangover cannot last forever, despite all appearances to the contrary.