There is a difference between a reason and an excuse for why a team is struggling.
Reasons are grounded in facts. They’re used to explain problems because they are quantifiable and observable, and are unsympathetic to one side of an issue or another.
For example, “Penn State’s lack of depth, a result of NCAA sanctions, is a reason it had its doors blown off against Michigan Saturday at the Big House.”
Excuses leave room for a little more spinning and editorializing. They provide a mechanism for one party to shift blame for something onto another, and veer a little further from what the facts dictate.
Example: “Penn State’s lack of depth, a result of NCAA sanctions, is the reason it had its doors blown off against Michigan Saturday at the Big House.”
It’s the same sentence but for one word, and that word probably makes all the difference in how frustrated you are after the Nittany Lions’ 49-10 loss against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
Reasonable people should be able to agree that Penn State’s roster was in a desperate situation Saturday.
At kickoff, it was missing its entire starting linebacking corps, as well as starters at corner (Grant Haley) and wide receiver (Saeed Blacknall). Over the course of the game, it lost third-string middle linebacker Brandon Smith to a questionable targeting call and fourth-stringer Jan Johnson to an injury.
For a program with a disproportionately high number of freshmen and sophomores on the roster thanks to those NCAA sanctions related to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, such damage is objectively untenable. The players replacing the starters simply don’t have the experience or refined skills necessary to step in and perform well against a team of Michigan’s caliber, and anyone who’d like to fault the coaches for that should probably do a little research on other teams’ fifth-string linebackers. Spoiler alert: They’re not good either.
However, there is an element of the Penn State Internet that would like to end the conversation there. As it did when Penn State was under sanctions, rather than simply suffering the effects of a green but full roster of 85 scholarship players, it seeks to deflect most of the blame from James Franklin’s coaching staff onto the nefarious NCAA by pointing out the lack of juniors and seniors on the field and downplaying the obvious faults in the game plan and tactics.
After the Pitt loss, they were right there with Franklin talking about the depth, as well as Pitt’s allegedly illegal pre-snap clapping routine on defense rather than the fact that Penn State used running back Saquon Barkley and receiver Chris Godwin, its two best players, sparingly until the second quarter, when Penn State began digging itself out of a 21-0 hole to lose respectably, 42-39.
Saturday, they were writing off as inconsequential the clumsy sequence in the third quarter where Franklin, down 28-0, first sent his field goal unit on to kick a meaningless 21-yard field goal from the Michigan 2-yard line, then called a timeout presumably to consider the smart call of going for a touchdown, only to end up kicking the field goal after the timeout anyway, and thus completely wasting it.
Not even Franklin was trying to defend that one, telling reporters after the game:
“That was not a good decision on my part. Second-guessed ourselves there and thought maybe we should go for the touchdown. … Everybody felt like we need to take the points at that point with a lot of time left in the half. If you’re going to kick the field goal, obviously, we should have took the penalty and kicked the field goal [without using the timeout].”
Franklin’s (rare) display of accountability there suggests even he knows process sometimes matters more than results. In this case, Penn State obviously did not lose the game because it opted to kick a field goal down 28-0. The depth issues played a bigger hand.
The depth issues are a well-known constant, though, and refusing to have a critical conversation about anything else related to this team until they’re resolved doesn’t do it any good for when it is in a position to win big games moving forward.
Do you want to see Penn State bringing the cutesy game plan it did against Pitt into a big conference game a couple of years from now? What about wasting a timeout and prime field position the way it did Saturday?
If not, then you call those out, not because they’re the reasons Penn State lost games it was destined to lose but because correcting the problems now might some day save it from losing big games it has a chance to win.
Otherwise, you’re just taking a good reason for Penn State’s biggest problem and turning it into a bad excuse for the smaller ones.
If you were expecting Penn State to win yesterday, I don’t know what to tell you. Sorry? It’s not the 1980s. The Nits aren’t just going to walk into a building and compete well simply because of their identity, and I’m sympathetic to anyone who’d like to make that point in Franklin’s defense.
Just know when to give it a rest. There are problems with this coaching staff worth discussing, and talking about them doesn’t mean ignoring the overarching issues with depth. It just means that sometimes it’s OK to talk about something else.