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Tuesday December 6 2022
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Dominating the State of Delusion

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The 2015 Pitt Panthers were an improved football team, but hardly a great one. Much of the praise heaped upon Pat Narduzzi and his staff for Pitt’s 8-4 regular season comes in light of extremely low expectations given the program's recent past.

On the other end of the state, the Temple Owls have earned a No. 20 AP ranking and an East Division title in the American Athletic Conference with a 10-2 record. Temple hammered Penn State and gave a top 5 Notre Dame team a much better game than Pitt was able to muster. The Owls may be playing for a berth in the Fiesta Bowl this weekend.

But when it comes to expectations, the bar at Temple is even lower than the one at Pitt. This is a program with such a miserable history that when the former Big East football conference was at its lowest, and nearing extinction, their very first move was to boot Temple out.

So when Penn State coach James Franklin announced two years ago his intentions to "dominate the state" of Pennsylvania, he wasn't giving himself that difficult of a job.

Merely outperforming Pitt and Temple has hardly been something worth bragging about. In fact, coaches who haven’t been able to do that have historically found themselves out of a job.

Yet Penn State was only the third-best program—out of three—in Pennsylvania this season. The Nittany Lions enter the bowl season with seven wins, one behind Pitt and a full three behind Temple.

This is a program still hampered by NCAA sanctions. While it is popular to blame the NCAA and Jerry Sandusky for all of Penn State's woes, there were other folks in Happy Valley that had something to do with those sanctions – such as the university’s former president, vice president, athletic director and head coach.

Franklin is still cleaning up their massive and entirely self-inflicted mess. It is an OSHA-level decontamination job that will take time.

That is indeed a significant part of Penn State's problem. But it is far from their only issue.

Despite an offense featuring quarterback Christian Hackenberg, projected by many as the potential first overall NFL draft pick entering this season—as well as consecutive Big Ten All-Freshman team players in wide receiver Chris Godwin and tailback Saquon Barkley—the Lions could not move the ball or find the end zone.

Out of 127 teams, Penn State’s offense finished the regular season ranked 108th in total offense, 106th in rushing offense, 82nd in passing offense, 101st in scoring offense and 125th in third-down conversions. Those numbers ultimately cost offensive coordinator John Donovan his job.

The Penn State defense, featuring one of the country's best defensive lines led by Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and national sack leader Carl Nassib, was much better than their offensive counterparts. Yet the unit was still helpless against elite offenses like Ohio State and Michigan State, who outscored the Nittany Lions 93-26 and racked up a combined 866 yards.

The Nittany Lions failed to win even one game against a team that had been ranked in the Top 25 at any point during the season. Pitt had two such wins; Temple one with a crack at a second on Saturday in Houston against the 17th-ranked Cougars.

Penn State has one game remaining. The Lions were able to create a lot of feel-good energy by beating a horrid Boston College team in their bowl game one year ago.

Perhaps they can generate similar enthusiasm with another postseason win later this month. Perhaps such a win will carry momentum into the offseason, where Franklin is again putting together an elite collection of recruits.

Things can turn around quickly, and Penn State is certainly building from a position of strength. The talent is there, with more on the way, and the fan base is waiting for a reason to once again turn Beaver Stadium into an epic destination.

But right now, it's not just the elite programs in the Big Ten that Penn State lags behind. It's also the other programs in their own state; the very ones the Penn State bumper stickers, t-shirts and Twitter hashtags promised to dominate.

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