Turns out, you can measure heart after all. And it's somewhere between the numbers 0 and 4. That's what Penn State is now after a comeback effort against previously winless Nebraska fell short 30-23. The 0-4 start is just the second for Penn State in school history, the other coming in 2001. The Nittany Lions are also just the fourth team to start 0-4 after being ranked in the preseason AP Top 10 -- the first since Pitt in 1984.
This year is shaping up to be a disaster for coach James Franklin. For the second time this season, Penn State actually outgained its opponent by more than 200 yards. The Nittany Lions' offense racked up 501 yards of offense to 298 from the Cornhuskers. However, a combination of turnovers and dreadful red zone offense was the difference makers. Quarterback Sean Clifford was pulled after turning the ball over two times, leading to 10 Nebraska points. His interception led to a Huskers field goal and his strip sack turned directly into a touchdown.
🚨 SCOOP AND SCORE 🚨@HuskerFBNation comes up with ANOTHER big defensive play to extend their first half lead pic.twitter.com/bDuhhQclf3— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) November 14, 2020
Penn State turned to backup Will Levis the rest of the way and he provided a spark his team so desperately needed. He finished the day with 280 yards of offense and led four scoring drives. Clifford's been hot and cold throughout his career, though lately he's been colder than hotter with six interceptions to boot. At this rate, a quarterback change seems likely.
But for all the things Levis did well, the story of the game was that Penn State couldn't score a touchdown when it was in the red zone. The Nittany Lions scored just one touchdown on six red zone trips against the Cornhuskers. That puts Penn State at a 42% conversion rate in the red zone this season (8 of 19). Penn State's red zone trips were marred by questionable play-calling, particularly on its final two drives. A steady, but ineffective barrage of fade passes were the norm, as were some telegraphed run plays. The results were predictably bad.
Since 2000, Penn State has had two games in which it gained 450+ yards and allowed fewer than 300 yards and lost— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) November 14, 2020
Penn State had 25 plays that weren't field goal attempts in Nebraska's red zone Saturday. It scored one touchdown among those plays.— Nate Bauer (@NateBauerBWI) November 14, 2020
It is worth giving Penn State some credit for making a necessary QB switch and coming out of halftime with a better plan to move the ball. When it mattered most, though, Penn State was poor situationally. That will be the lingering haunt from the trip to Lincoln. The Nittany Lions have lost just about every way possible in four games. They played well enough to beat Indiana, but came up short. They were outmatched by Ohio State, which happens to a lot of teams. The Maryland loss was stunning and perhaps a sign of what was to come. The failed comeback against Nebraska is the type of stuff that can break spirits.
Penn State has played hard despite all of the things that have gone wrong. But now there's a real likelihood that this team, at its absolute best, will be .500. They'll be underdogs against Iowa and Michigan, and there's a non-zero chance Rutgers and/or Michigan State gets the best of them, too. That's a far fall for a team that, just this calendar year, was returning linebacker Micah Parsons and running back Journey Brown. But Parsons opted out and Brown had to retire from football due to a heart condition. Through opt outs, injuries and general deficiencies, Penn State looks like a shell of itself and the season appears practically lost. In fact, Saturday might have been the chance to turn things around.
It'd be a stretch to say Penn State has quit. That's probably unfair. But this has become a lost season in Happy Valley.