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Jon’s Postlife Crisis: Dustin Hockensmith of Pennlive.com - What Is Wrong With Penn State Football?

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Penn State is 0-3. They didn’t expect to be here.

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Ohio State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

This episode I am joined by Dustin Hockensmith, a really nice guy who writes about Penn State football for Pennlive.com.

Penn State football is 0-3. They’re in a bit of a discombobulation. Dustin and I talk about what the hell is going wrong in Happy Valley.

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About the Transcript

Keep in mind that the following is a transcript. I use a service that automates the first draft. As much as “artificial intelligence” is included in the description of every bit of technology these days, it’s clear that computers understanding human speech is more artificial than intelligent. The transcript has been edited to take out human speech bites, you know, um, okay, uh, but it’s not been edited to be an “article”.

Transcript

Jon Johnston: Welcome to Jon’s Postlife Crisis, I am Jon Johnston founder and fearless leader of CornNation.com, your Nebraska Cornhusker site of despair. So it seems kind of early in the 2020 season after two games and it’s almost the middle of November.

Jon Johnston: This episode we are talking with Dustin Hockensmith of Penn Live dot com Dustin covers Penn State football and the Nittany Lions are currently 0-3 with a close loss to Indiana, a blowout loss to the Buckeyes. And I don’t know how to describe what happened with Maryland. So, Dustin, what the hell is going on with Penn State football?

Dustin Hockensmith: There are so it’s a long list of issues to try to get through. And I think that’s probably the most troubling thing for people who follow this team, is that there’s not one or two quick fixes anywhere. You can look at any number of positions, virtually every position group on the field, the coaching staff as well. There are four new members of that staff, the energy that they’ve started games with or the lack of energy that they’ve started games with. Up front in the trenches on the offensive and defensive lines, those have been some of the bigger disappointments, I think, through three weeks. There’s disappointment up and down. And now they’re challenged in this situation. As you’re in the middle of the season grind, you’ve got six days to try to really focus on yourselves and shore up all the insufficient performances that you’ve seen up and down the roster and then also gear up in game plan for this Nebraska team. Two winless teams, two traditional, I guess powerhouse could describe both of these teams, but two traditional college powers who are really trying to find themselves. It’s an interesting situation, isn’t it?

Jon Johnston: I wouldn’t use the word interesting, but yeah. The fan base in Nebraska is a little bit you know, they go outside with pitchforks and torches, except you’re not really supposed to gather in large groups and things like that.

Dustin Hockensmith: Yeah. It eliminates some of the pitch forks, some of the angry villagers. They’re limited right now. I guess that’s the plus of the situation.

Jon Johnston: I go around and I look, I follow the Big Ten and I follow their fan bases, too, because the whole psychology of fan bases is interesting to me. But it looks like Penn State’s fan base, they would have pitchforks and torches too right now. What’s the feeling toward James Franklin and his staff?

Dustin Hockensmith: Well, I think there’s a there’s a degree of angst and there’s multiple factions of every fan base, but there are there are reasonable fans who kind of understand that from 2014 to now. I mean, this has been one of the better stretches stretches in recent Penn State history, especially all things considered, when, you know, 2014, 2015, they’re still very much dealing with scholarship limitations that came from the whole Sandusky scandal and and all the opposition groups that had been depleted and the amount of time it takes to build them back up. So I think especially from 2016 onward, there is some good faith with the reasonable fans. But ever since James Franklin got here, there is a faction of fans, a small faction of people who have never really accepted him. And then every time there’s a botched game time decision, in game decision, it’s not really his strength as a coach. I think anybody from the outside, in the inside can recognize that not really his strength as a coach and as a very visible weakness that he’s trying to overcome every time something like that happens, like, for example, Indiana, fourth quarter, you can run out the clock with the first down and said the running back scores a touchdown. You know how much of that can be laid at James Franklin’s feet? Might depend on who you ask about that. But every time you have a high profile, you know, botched game clock situation, you have people who are kind of calling for his head. But I think most people understand that you’re in the weeds right now. But you also have some reason to believe that this coach and his staff can pull through that because he’s offered a lot of examples over the past three or four years.

Jon Johnston: Indiana, I, I watched that, you know, I like Penn State football. We’ve been around together for a long time, Nebraska and Penn State, ever since the you cheated like hell in 82. I’m old. That happened when I was in college. I rioted, whatever. It’s in the past. But I watched the Indiana game and you kind of look at that guy, OK, it was the starting game. It was a little lackluster. The two point call pretty iffy, but it went Indiana’s way. Ohio State, they’re a juggernaut. You kind of said, OK, and Penn State keep up with them. And they really got smoked early and then made scored late, made it look decent. And then this last game with Maryland, I told my buddy that I work with now you’re going to kill Maryland. And then what happened with Maryland? I obviously they have a quarterback with a name and they scored and what what happened with Maryland?

Dustin Hockensmith: I think you’ve painted a pretty good, accurate picture of Penn State so far, it’s not that they get a pass for Indiana, but you come out of Indiana saying, you know what, three turnovers. We get 10 penalties for 100 yards. I mean, those are kind of uncharacteristic things. And, you know, on the stat sheet, Penn State was in control of that game. So you can look at that and say, you know, you can get not give them a pass, but you can understand that Ohio State, as you mentioned, that was not going to be a win no matter what, no matter how they played. Well, Maryland really was the big one where they’re on their heels. It’s 21-0. You know, it’s 7-0. They make it look easy. That first drive, they run a pretty simple crossing route. The kid takes it 42 yards, one of the biggest recruits in modern Maryland history, where Cam Jarrett maybe can help spur this turnaround that they’re hoping to go through. But they run the same play a couple of drives later. And this time it goes 62 yards. The same exact thing happens. Penn State may be on their heels a bit, maybe not ready to play. Maybe they’ve relied on this home crowd more than they’ve realized over the years.

Dustin Hockensmith: They’re playing in front of an empty stadium, too. So there’s been a lack of energy in all three games really, and some mistakes. But defensively, I think that’s where was most disappointing for for the Maryland game. It’s a good quarterback. It’s a pretty good offense, but they should not be getting the number of chunk plays that they got on this Penn State defense. So it’s back to the drawing board for them, too, because even in Indiana, you came away thinking, OK, Penn State’s got a couple of good corners. The safeties have been pretty much invisible for four, three weeks. The linebackers have been invisible. And then on the other side against Maryland getting no push up front, this veteran Penn State offensive line against the Maryland defense that had been that had been gashed in the run game. I think that was another big disappointment as they couldn’t establish that at all. They couldn’t push. They couldn’t blocking the pass game gave up, I think, six or seven sacks in that game. So, you know, up front was supposed to be a strength for this Maryland or this Penn State offense. And the fact that it hasn’t has been pretty discouraging quarterback play. Again, I think all three weeks have been outplayed by the other team’s quarterback. It’s hard to win like that too.

Jon Johnston: Quarterback Sean Clifford is not Trace McSorley. Lets start there.

Dustin Hockensmith: Yeah, fair.

Dustin Hockensmith: I think in some ways Sean Clifford might have more physical talent than Trace McSorley did. I think he runs a little bit better. He’s he runs in the low to mid four or five than the forty. You’ve seen him do some good things with his feet. I’ve seen him flash being able to throw a very nice deep ball. I’ve seen him flash throwing some accurate, you know, short and intermediate stuff. But more often I’ve seen a quarterback who gets a little frazzled when there’s some pressure and maybe see some ghosts once in a while. Maybe he takes his eyes down too quickly, maybe bails, maybe doesn’t see the whole field as well as he should. That’s what they’re working through at the quarterback position is not physical stuff. It might be more mental stuff. It might be more poise, composure, better decision making. And really, the question is, and there at this point now of how fixable is this, is he too far along to fix? Is this situation still salvageable? That’s where they’re at. And I think maybe Nebraska. There are some some similar questions that have been happening in the early part of this year.

Jon Johnston: We can’t go to Nebraska yet.

Dustin Hockensmith: OK, that’s fair, that’s fair, that’s fair.

Jon Johnston: Starting running back Journey Brown is out, right, OK.

Jon Johnston: From what I’ve seen, there’s no nobody even close to Saquon Barkley. But honestly, there’s nobody close to that in a lot of places. But there’s no like blow the field away, cut up the field I’m gone guy at running back.

Jon Johnston: It’s been not very good?

Dustin Hockensmith: Yeah, I mean, that’s an accurate way to put it. It’d be interesting to see if Jurnee Brown was playing under these conditions. The rest of the offense was still a little bit of a mess. The offensive line wasn’t getting much of a push. He would be more successful. How much more successful? I don’t really know. And then you have the other dynamic. OK, you go to another guy and Noah Cain, who had got some very valuable experience, a meaningful game reps. Played a very important role when he was healthy last year. So you go to him and OK, it’s not the worst thing in the world. Then he gets hurt in the first series against Indiana. And now you’re going to Devyn Ford, who at one point was a five star prospect. He’s a sophomore. But how ready was he for prime time? That was thrust upon him? And now you lose two running backs in here. You have two true freshmen who are very talented. And Keyvone Lee. And Caziah Holmes, how ready were they to move up to their respective roles? Now to the running game became quite a mess early and a couple of injuries had something to do with that. But physically, again, you have guys who are capable of doing the job. I just don’t think that they were ready yet and I don’t think they were the types of backs, certainly with a lack of experience to make up for deficiencies up front. They haven’t been those guys. So the lack of a push and the lack of readiness from this group of running backs to kind of step into prime time, it’s been a perfect storm. I think it factors.

Jon Johnston: So receiving you’ve got Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth Has to be one of the best tight ends in the nation, but he’s only scored one touchdown so far this season, 16 receptions, 197 yards. I mean, this is his production about where you think it be or is it kind of drug into the ground because of this malaise all over?

Dustin Hockensmith: I think with Freiermuth, you were hoping to see elite production. He he scored more touchdowns than any tight end in Penn State history. And he’s got that. And he is a very valuable red zone weapon. I think his relative lack of production and you say lack of production with a grain of salt, I think. I mean, he’s having a nice start to the year, but we haven’t seen him make the leap to dominance. I personally think that has more to do with what’s around him than him personally. He’s still a player that Nebraska very much has to account for and gameplan around stopping. They are a work in progress, you know, in the receiving game across the board. Jahan Dotson has stepped into that number one role much better than I thought he would. He is a more dynamic player than I thought he was going to be even this year. We saw it in flashes before. But to look at what he did against Ohio State, one on one coverage with Sean Wade making unbelievable catches up high. I did not see this guy who’s five foot ten and 180 pounds being they throw it up and he’ll make a play for your guy. And he’s emerged as that elsewhere. You’ve seen a true freshman by the name of Parker Washington scored two touchdowns last week. Again, he’s five foot ten and 205 pounds. He looks like he’s going to be a player for Penn State. He’s shown flashes. He’s been a starter in all three games beyond those two guys that the wide receiver position, they’re looking for bodies and they’re looking for a spark. They’ve got some guys who’ve been around for a bit. We haven’t seen a certified number three option emerge. And I don’t think you could really say they have a certified number two option. And Parker, Washington, although he looks promising.

Jon Johnston: Ok, defense at the beginning of the year before we started, I did a podcast interview with Black Shoe Diaries guys, and I joked with them, if I remember right, they since Micah Parsons was gone, the whole defense would fall apart and the defense hasn’t looked good. What’s going on on the defensive side of the ball?

Dustin Hockensmith: I think there are ample issues to to get into. I think, you know, Penn State struggled in the second half of last season defending the past. And the big question was, what have you done, whether that’s from a personnel or a coaching standpoint, to try to shore up that gigantic weakness? They said all the right things. I think personnel wise, I feel like they should be as good, if not better, on the back end of this defense as they were before. The safeties haven’t made an impact like I thought they would. Lamont Wade is a senior. Jaquan Brisker is a senior. Both of these guys are pretty talented, capable of making game changing plays. We haven’t seen any game changing plays from these guys. Really, Lamont, we had an interception in week one, but they have been not as big a factor as I thought at the cornerback spots. This is a good name for you guys to watch as Joey Porter Junior, who’s a redshirt freshman, will be starting his fourth game. Very talented player. Thirty five inch arms. You know, the son of Joey Porter who played for the Steelers and Dolphins is going to be a good player too. Tariq Castro-Fields is a senior on the opposite side. They had some issues last week against Maryland, those two crossing plays that I spoke of before. So they’ve got to get it together. The linebackers. You know, I think this is one area where you really miss Michael Parsons. They have some guys who are disciplined. But the guy who stepped in to make a passing starting job is a junior by the name of Jesse Luketa, who was gearing up to compete for time at the middle linebacker spot.

Dustin Hockensmith: And now you have him on the weak side, which, you know, you go from Micah Parsons, who is a rangy, aggressive, can make up for being out of position. He’s such a physical freak that he was making game changing plays on a regular basis. That’s not really Jesse Luketa. They’re OK in the middle. Brandon Smith is a true sophomore. He’s six foot four, six foot five, 240 pounds, seven foot wingspan. You know, he’s a talented guy, former five star. He hasn’t really shown up and popped on tape either. So underperformance and in kind of an understandable we just lost that one of the best players in the country and Micah Parsons. And then the pass rush. There’s a lot of sizzle there, but there hasn’t been a lot of steak in the pass rush with, you know, Jason OEI projected as a potential first round pick. He’s a redshirt, sophomore physical freak. Shaka Toney, of the fastest get off that you’ll see in the Big Ten. The production hasn’t quite met the the the upside there. So I think I mean, in all these situations, it’s all across the defense. And then I think coaching, too. I don’t I haven’t seen a whole different approach from the one that was, as Brent Pry, the defensive coordinator said, was too vanilla. In the second half of last year. I haven’t seen a whole lot of chocolate to go with that vanilla either.

Jon Johnston: You’ve got the cliches, man.

Dustin Hockensmith: I do. And I’m I’m making them up as I go too.

Jon Johnston: When I when I was preparing for this, I noticed that Penn State is seventh in the Big Ten in total defense.Nebraska is eighth and Penn State is seventh in total offense in conference, Nebraska is eighth. When you look at Nebraska, what worries you, being the unbiased Homer guy you are for Penn State?

Dustin Hockensmith: This is a team that maybe you can say collective back against the wall has got a little fire to them looking to make some kind of statement. Right. You know, through all this stuff there with the Covid situation. You know, I think if we’re calling a spade a spade here, Penn State and a lot of in a lot of positions is more talented than Nebraska is. There’s still a little bit of building going on. Penn State has recruited well and most of the fruits of that recruitment, looking at 2018 and 2019, probably James Franklin’s best two classes. Recruiting has faded a little bit, which is a whole different story. So you’ve you’ve got a lot of former four star, five star types for Penn State. The talent edge I think is there. But you know, Nebraska, you just don’t know when you have when you have a team that’s got a little desperation to them, how this Nebraska team is going to look, how they’re going to respond this Saturday, I don’t know the answer to that. I think this is going to be a messy game. Personally, I think, you know, it was kind of messy against Northwestern for you guys. I think it’s going to be a little bit sloppy, a little bit messy. There’s going to be some mistakes. There’s going to be some some things. It’s not going to be the most watchable football you’ve ever seen in your life. But I think that probably favors Nebraska too.

Jon Johnston: So who do you think should start for Nebraska? Luke McCaffrey or Adrian Martinez? Because we have to ask. I asked the people at Target that question. When I’m checking out, I’m like, Luke or Adrian? What? Paper or plastic. What do you want from me?

Dustin Hockensmith: You know, describe for me the usage of these two guys a little bit more. I know that they’ve both been used, especially last week. But how are they going about divvying up snaps between these guys?

Jon Johnston: Well, Adrian has been the starting quarterback against Ohio State. We saw Luke come into the game at the same time with some special packages, and he was explosive against Northwestern. Luke McCaffrey did not see the field until almost the third quarter was over. And the explanation was, well, Northwestern was taking away whatever he could do, which you kind of go, I don’t know. I don’t know how to process that, like what you had for four plays, they could run together on the field. Adrian was struggling. You couldn’t just swap them in. And then toward the end of the game, Luke McCaffrey came into the game. He didn’t score any points that the offense looked like they at least moved the ball. They had a little bit more spark. I didn’t I don’t know what is going on with how we’re playing some of our players, but it’s very confusing to me and.

Dustin Hockensmith: I think this situation is exactly what James Franklin was trying to avoid with his own quarterback situation this past week, a lot of people wondering, why do we not see the backup when Shorncliffe Clifford, a six or twenty one, you know, early in the third quarter against against this Maryland team, why are we not trying something else? And I thought he didn’t want to make a big statement. He didn’t want to get into this mess where you’re trying to figure out how you deploy both quarterbacks. Now, what I would say would be, you can’t you can’t go one dimensional against this Penn State defense. If this Pennsy defense, if you’re not able to pose a threat through the air, for example, and they’re able to kind of bear down on the running game, even if you’ve got a talented running quarterback that would swing the pendulum into Penn State’s favor. What I would say is, all right, let’s throw let’s throw two very different looks at this Penn State defense and let’s make them adjust because they’ve shown through three weeks they’re not really making adjustments until the second half of games. Let’s come out. Let’s show something aggressive. Let’s get a little tricky with this and let’s make them adjust, see if they’re able to adjust to us faster than what they’ve shown, especially now that they’re going on the road. So that would be my expectation is that there’s going to be something unpredictable with the way that the Nebraska deploys these guys.

Jon Johnston: There’s been like zero downfield threat. I don’t know if that’s because Adrian Martinez won’t throw the ball downfield because he’s afraid of interceptions, but there’s been nothing there. Strongest, biggest, most explosive plays have been quarterback runs or one of those guys just decides I’m running. Yeah, no downfield passing whatsoever.

Dustin Hockensmith: There could be some success in that like you saw. I keep coming back to these crossing plays for for Maryland. You saw pursuit and tackling and those two plays in and some other place where if you’re getting to the perimeter, if you’re getting to the edge, if you’re getting to the second level of this Penn State defense, there is a chance to break some plays open. Penn State has to show above all else, if Nebraska is not going to be able to stretch the field and make you defend the entire field, it’s going to it’s going to benefit Penn State. But they have to show that when one passes are completed six to eight yards downfield, that they can limit these plays to six to eight yards. That’s the one big question. And I think for Scott, for all you want to try to let’s see if these guys can wrap up that might play in the Nebraska’s advantage. If you’re able to maybe complete some passes short in some space and see if these Penn State defenders can tackle because they couldn’t tackle last week. And I think we’ll see. Similarly, I think we’ll see if you can get Adrian Martinez to the edge. If you can get him in some space, can Penn State tackle, that’s something in a week they’re going to have to turn around and do a much better job of doing that. And I think Nebraska, if they’ll sense that vulnerability and see see if Penn State’s fix that part of their game.

Jon Johnston: Have you watched much college football? I mean, all around this year?

Dustin Hockensmith: The first few weeks I did more so than once the Big Ten started out. Once the Big Ten started up, I got a little bit more hyper focus on on Penn State in the Big Ten. But I did watch and it was nice. I mean, to get the late start and be able to have the whole Saturday. It was kind of nice for a while. So I did get a chance to see most of what I would call the contending teams.

Jon Johnston: Would you say the defense is just optional this season, for some reason, social distancing, no tackling in practice, lack of practice, there’s just no defense anywhere.

Dustin Hockensmith: I think that’s true. And it’s really interesting, because if you would ask most coaches under normal circumstances in the middle of camp, who’s ahead at the beginning of camp? What unit is ahead at the end of camp? What unit is. It’s almost always the defense, isn’t it? So now we have all these disruptions and stuff and maybe the way that they’ve practiced kind of narrowed that gap. But there’s a coordination thing. Is it a lack of time or the lack of pad time to be able to focus on the fundamental portions of it? I don’t know what what deficiency specifically there’s been across the country, whether that’s fundamental stuff or scheming stuff or preparedness. But I think you’re right. I think that’s one area I did not see coming is that that defense has struggled to keep up with offense.

Jon Johnston: Yeah. Has the whole virus situation, I ask you a question about Penn State, the environment, how is the virus? How is Penn State, the university and their student body? Because I do care about what happens to people. How are they dealing with that? How’s it going in Pennsylvania?

Dustin Hockensmith: Penn State and Center County were problematic for a while, leading the weeks leading up to the season, and then it seems like the university and the community there have done a better than better job than I thought they would, you know, relative to other college campuses of eliminating or minimizing the behavior that causes the spread of this, minimizes the behavior that 20 year old college kids kind of disregard. And that was one thing. You know, how do you account for that variable of trying to get twenty and twenty one year olds to follow these rules when it comes to the whole reason they’re in college in the first place? So he’s done a pretty good job after Ohio State. They had to kind of publicly scold some large gatherings. But, man, you’re not going to drive that down to zero on and around college campuses, are you? Like, that’s just it’s a lot to ask. And you saw it, Notre Dame, Clemson last weekend. They made the decision to let some some students in and let some fans in and then they pull off this monumental win. They weren’t prepared enough for for typical college behavior.

Jon Johnston: Would you like to make a prediction?

Dustin Hockensmith: I made one. I don’t I don’t really enjoy doing the predictions because it’s you’re you’re so wrong so often. I’ve got it at 24-23,Penn State wins this game. They go into it as favorites. I think it’s going to be yucky to watch. I don’t think it’s good. I don’t see Nebraska fixing all that ails this team in the span of six days. I don’t see Penn State fixing all the problems that are pretty deep rooted in all areas of this team. In six days, I’ve got my prediction as talent winning out, Penn State does something to fall ass backwards into a win in this game.

Jon Johnston: I want to go 24-23 too. But the thing about this is when I do predictions, I based them on my feelings and hope and and I’ve really you know, it’s really nasty running a website when everybody that you never see comes in and comments on the website. You never see these same people until things get really crappy and then they’re there to like, I told you everything was full of disease and foul air. I know I owe you guys a prediction on your site that I’d probably go we’re going to score 32-30 Nebraska. There you go.

Dustin Hockensmith: All right. You could tell me just about anything that will transpire this weekend and and part of me will believe it. So you guys, you really go with your gut and try to figure out know who’s the cleaner football team in this game? I don’t you know, we’ll see what happens. I think Penn State’s going to going to pull it out. And by the way, I was going to say hate clicks count the same as love clicks. All right. And there there’s always going to be, you know, the faction of the base that can’t wait to pile on. They love their team, but they also love to hate their team when things are going bad. And Nebraska fans have been through a lot. And however they want to try to consume what their team is doing, by all means, go for it.

Jon Johnston: Well, OK, should we end there, I usually end like, driving a car off a cliff. I need To get better my endings.

Dustin Hockensmith: Let’s do this. Thelma and Louise style will hold hands virtually and we’ll fly off this cliff together.

Jon Johnston: Ok, this has been Jon’s post life crisis. We’re going off the cliff. You guys have a good weekend. Remember with Luke McCaffrey said, see how bad I am. I’m just driving and then I hit the brakes. Luke McCaffrey said it was a blessing to be on the field. Keep that in mind, Nebraska fans, because this year sucks and maybe it’s just a blessing this weekend to be able to watch Nebraska play Penn State. There you go. Go Big Red. Thanks to Dustin for joining us. Y’all take care.

Jon Johnston: There you go.