* Last year, in the wake of their first loss of the year (to Army in week three), the 'Cats were enveloped by a miasma and dropped four more in a row before emerging from their funk. Now, a fall later, they have just suffered their first loss of this season (on Saturday at Penn State) and here looming in front of them is a rigorous road test at 4-1 Minnesota. So, we wondered Monday, just how do they make sure they do not reprise the struggles that beset them a year ago.
"It's all about just refocusing," answered senior defensive tackle Brian Arnfelt, who is one of their captains. "It's on our (list of) values. Respond. How do we respond? I don't think we necessarily took the right attitude last year. But I don't think with this year's group that's going to be an issue at all. I think we have a group of character guys who are willing to answer, who are willing to put in the work during the week, the film study, the practice, the reps, the grind, in order to get the results on Saturday. So I don't think that will be an issue...
* The 'Cats, in State College on Saturday, were in a righteous place after Venric Mark gave them an 11-point lead with his 75-yard punt return for a touchdown. But here, with 44 seconds left in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions began a drive that would number 18 plays and eat up a second more than six minutes and end in the touchdown and two-point conversion that left them trailing by only three. If there was a single fulcrum on which this game turned, it was now, as the 'Cat offense trotted onto the field.
Clearly, its defense needed a rest. It had, after all, been at work for better than nine straight minutes on the game clock. But here Mike Trumpy ran for two, then ran for two again, and Trevor Siemian missed Rashad Lawrence on a fly, which forced the 'Cats to punt and their defense back into the fray once again. "There was a momentum swing, no question, when our offense went back out on the field when we were up by three," Pat Fitzgerald said Monday at his weekly press conference. "We've got to answer the bell there. Everything else that happened in the game is what it is. Our offense has got to go out there and answer the bell better. That's one thing we talked a lot about. We had to go out and seize momentum. We didn't do it and then we put our defense in a tough situation."
* Asked Monday about Venric Mark's absence on that series, Fitzgerald allowed, "He got dinged up on the kickoff return. But he's fine."
* In Saturday's first half, Penn State faced 10 third-down situations. The 'Cats stopped them on nine of those occasions. (On two of these, the Nittany Lions went for it on fourth down and converted). But in Saturday's second half, the story was different. On its first drive of the third quarter, it converted on third-and-one, converted on third-and-six and ultimately scored the touchdown that gave it a three-point lead. On its second drive of this quarter, it failed on third-and-24 and launched the punt that Mark took to the house. On its next drive, which spanned the third and fourth quarters, it converted on third-and-two, converted on third-and-three, converted again on third-and-three, converted on third-and-two, failed on third-and-four but converted on fourth-and-four, which gave it a touchdown and (after the two-point conversion) cut its deficit to three.
Now, after the 'Cat offense managed only that three-and-out, this theme would be reprised on the drive that gave Penn State the lead for good. It converted on third-and-one. It converted on third-and-two. It failed on third-and-five, gaining only three, but converted on fourth-and-two. It converted on third-and-goal from the five for the touchdown that put it up four. "They got the best of us, I guess," Arnfelt would say when asked about the Nittany Lions' third-down success.
Was weariness an issue?
"We can't control when we have to go out there. But we can control when we come off," he said. "I think, internally, on the defensive line, there were a lot of plays to be made and a lot of opportunities missed. When you get on those long drives, you've really just got to refocus. Obviously, it gets tiring out there and you've got to push through it and respond. On the d line, we just look to each other. I look over, I see Quentin Williams, I see Tyler Scott, I see Sean (McEvilly, his fellow defensive tackle). We push each other, so I don't think it was an issue."
* We respect Arnfelt and so respect his response even though logic and the eye test both beg a different answer. Still. The microscope here must focus on the 'Cat offense, which managed just a pair of sustained drives against Penn State and finished with only 247 total yards. Its most dynamic performer, Kain Colter, threw nary a pass, rushed five times and caught three passes for a modest 17 yards. Its most passionate performer, the diminutive Mark, rushed 13 times (for a healthy 72 yards) and caught two passes (for six yards), and Siemian's 21 completions netted 135 yards (his long went for 16). Later, at his post-game press conference, Fitzgerald put the resultant loss on the coaches.
What did he mean by that, he was asked Monday.
"We couldn't help our guys get started," he explained at one point. "As I look back at the tape, we didn't really get into rhythm. At the start of the game, being backed up at the one (on their first possession). Then we go three straight drives of three-and-out. That's not our blueprint for success. . . We've got to do a better job offensively taking what the defense gives us. We've got to be able to run the ball more efficiently. Then if we execute a little bit better, we'll be all right."
Then later, asked further about the 'Cats paucity of offense on Saturday, he added, "I'll second guess the entire game because we lost. I'll leave it as simple as that. There were a lot of things we could have done differently to win the football game that's on us as coaches, that's on guys on individual plays. But if I would have told you in August we're going to be in control of our destiny to win the Big Ten championship, would you be happy? That's what I said to the team. So that's where we sit right now.
"Unfortunately, we let one get away. But. . .all of our goals are in front of us here going into week seven. . .and that's our focus. I could nit-pick everything. I could nit-pick the way our shoelaces looked and all that kind of stuff. That's not my job. My job is to make sure we're doing the right things. There's some things we would have done differently and will do differently as we move forward. We've got to find ways to win and that's our challenge as coaches. To give our guys the weapons to win and we didn't do that on Saturday."
* But, as last fall showed, there is another challenge as well. So we will end here where we began and wonder how the 'Cats can regain their mojo and not allow this loss to send them spiraling into a losing streak. "Number one, you can't let a team beat you twice. You've just got to get back to work," said Fitzgerald. "We have a 24-hour rule here. If we win a game, we don't say, 'Hey, we're great, we've arrived' and sit on our laurels and not have a great week of preparation. I thought our prep last week was great. I don't look back and think that our guys didn't do a great job preparing. I thought our plan, if we got off to a different start, might have (worked out) a little bit different. But with that being said, I think we're a different team. I think we learned a lot a year ago.
"I think Quentin Williams said it best, or maybe it was Probes (linebacker Damien Proby). He said, 'The guys are hungry to be that guy to make the play to win.' That's kind of our attitude right now."