Bob Ford: Loss to Ohio continues Penn State's free fall

Posted: September 02, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The free fall down an elevator shaft that has defined the Penn State football program since last November went a few floors deeper on Saturday, when the Nittany Lions opened their season at home with a loss to Ohio University of the Mid-American Conference.

The question is when will the Lions hit the bottom of the ride, or if there even is a bottom for the near future.

Maybe things aren't really that bleak - it was only one football game played with a lot of new players for a brand-new coaching staff and system - but Penn State will have to play a complete game, and win, before the worst case is proved not to be the actual case. The truth is that the Lions did some good things, but they still weren't good enough to knock off the incumbent winner of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

In order, since the beginning of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the program lost its innocence, lost its athletic director, lost its legendary head coach, lost its wins for the previous 14 seasons, and lost its ability to contend in the Big Ten, thanks to NCAA sanctions on scholarships and postseason appearances. Other than that, things have been great.

And the hits just keep on coming. Now they can add a regular-season, 24-14 loss to a non-BCS conference opponent to the list of woes, just the second since the implementation of the BCS in 1998 and the first in more than a decade (Toledo, 2000).

Well, it isn't as if the Penn State players aren't familiar with adversity, or don't know how to handle it. Those who stuck with the program know what it means to get hit hard, and get hit hard again, and keep showing up for practice. If they didn't run away from the situation before this season, they aren't going to be bothered by the small matter of not winning one game.

"We lost a game, the first game of the season," said quarterback Matt McGloin, who led the Lions to a 14-3 halftime lead, but couldn't keep the offense from stalling in the second half. "We would have liked to win, but we've got another game next week."

That might not be the good news, because they've got 11 more games, and all of them are going to be difficult if the Lions don't play significantly better. The next three games are against Virginia, Navy, and Temple, and while that would have seemed a pleasant walk-up to the Big Ten schedule a few years ago - even one year ago - it looks like a perilous stretch with the possibility of further embarrassment now.

New head coach Bill O'Brien didn't have much to say after the game aside from the standard, clenched-jaw observations about needing to do a better job himself and that the blame for the loss all starts with him. How he knows he did a bad job would be a good question since this was his first-ever game as a head coach at any level, but he wasn't in the mood for riddle-me-this questions after the game.

"The offense has to keep the defense off the field, and when the defense is out there, they've got to make stops," O'Brien said.

It was that last part that was most troubling for Penn State, as Ohio gained 301 total yards in the second half and went on drives of 82, 70, 50, and 93 yards in scoring its 21 unanswered points. The defense was supposed to be the Lions' strength, if there was one, and the rock that would hold things together if McGloin faltered or if the losses of transfers Silas Redd and Justin Brown left the offense short on real weapons.

There's no doubt that Ohio is a decent offensive team and that option quarterback Tyler Tettleton can deliver a nice pass. But there were gaps in the pass coverage that led to 31 completions and holes at the line of scrimmage through which halfback Beau Blankenship could gain 109 yards on the ground. He averaged 35 yards a game last season against mostly MAC competition.

If the defense is as porous against a truly good team as it was in the second half against Ohio, then there will be some scores that will look perfectly awful as they hang on the scoreboard. It remains to be seen if the legions of fans will continue to take in the spectacle. There were nearly 10,000 empty seats on Saturday, but that isn't wildly unusual for a Labor Day weekend home opener against a lesser draw.

The test comes later, after the Big Ten schedule begins. It could get ugly and, considering the hatchet the NCAA took to the program's competitive level, it could stay ugly for a number of years.

Meanwhile, the plunge down the elevator shaft continues, and the ride for Penn State and its fans is terrifying.

The landing doesn't look like it will be any fun, either.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @bobfordsports. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns

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