STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — James Franklin needed to remind reporters at least three times on Tuesday that he was in the Beaver Stadium media room to talk about the Nittany Lions’ upcoming game and not the last one.
But questions have lingered for No. 8 Penn State after a one-point loss to Ohio State put the Nittany Lions on the outside looking in at a shot to play for the Big Ten championship.
Having a bye weekend after the fact hasn’t helped ease those questions. A chance to make good on the loss with a win over Michigan State (3-2, 1-1) could, however.
“Obviously it hurts,” Franklin said. “It hurts our fans. It hurts our coaches. It hurts our players. I think the last thing you want to do is ignore that. You recognize that. You watch the film. You evaluate the film, you make the corrections and you move forward.”
The Nittany Lions aren’t completely out of the playoff picture but need some help moving forward.
First, they need to avoid the pitfall that all but ended their playoff hopes last season after a loss to the Buckeyes with a lackluster game full of mistakes against the Spartans.
Then, a last-second field goal made easier by a handful of defensive penalties sailed through the uprights after a weather delay forced both teams to spend nearly 3 1/2 hours in the locker room in the middle of the game.
“To be optimistic about that day, it was a time where we kind of bonded and had our own little time together,” Penn State wideout Juwan Johnson said. “You don’t get too many times where you’re in the game and you’re just chilling with your teammates for three hours in the locker room.”
They watched movies on their laptops, played hangman and other games to pass the time, and some took naps.
This group of Nittany Lions won’t get that comfortable.
After the Ohio State loss, Franklin vowed to make his players “uncomfortable” from here on out, insisting that after the game he felt the team had grown accustomed to being “great” during a run that produced 24 wins in 27 games, a Big Ten title in 2016 up until its most recent loss.
They started making progress toward that, with multiple players saying Tuesday they took a more serious approach to watching film and spent extra time getting rehab and treatment for multiple ailments.
Meanwhile, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio wants his players, who are coming off a 29-19 loss to Northwestern, to play like like an elite bunch, too.
“I feel like we should be 5-0,” Dantonio said. “My message to our players is: Play like it. Play like we’re 5-0. Keep the same mindset as we go forward.”
The Spartans, who boast the nation’s top rushing defense, yielded control of their game against the Wildcats when Northwestern mounted a long scoring drive late in the third quarter. Northwestern took advantage of Michigan State’s shoddy pass defense and Clayton Thorson was 7 of 8 for 58 yards and delivered the dagger on a 21-yard touchdown pass.
Overall, Michigan State’s secondary is allowing 305 yards per game through the air.
Johnson, who leads Penn State in drops in what was supposed to be a breakout season for him, isn’t letting the numbers convince him this will be an easy game, however. Elite teams don’t tend to think like that.
“Think about the positive things that happen and feed off that,” Johnson said. “Because the moment you start thinking about the negative things, you’re going to start feeling a certain way and going to start getting into your head.”
Dantonio isn’t as concerned with the number, either.
“Well, how are we playing against the perimeter pass, which is bubbles and jailbreak screens and things like that,” Dantonio said. “Because they’ve got to throw that into the run game, because that’s how people are running the ball against us in some regards. So we look at that aspect and ask ourselves how we’re playing and we work at it.”