In hindsight it was a bad omen early Saturday when it was revealed that star cornerback Kalen King and All-American left tackle Olu Fashanu opted out of playing in the Peach Bowl. Even without four starters on the field, the Penn State Nittany Lions may have been at a bigger disadvantage on the sidelines.
In the postgame press conference, James Franklin pointed to the turnover in the program as one of the biggest reasons for the 38-25 loss to the Ole Miss Rebels.
“Specifically to the game, just too many moving parts with the staff and with the players against a good team. Too many moving parts, staff, and players, to have the type of success that we wanted to have today,” Franklin said.
Without King and his typical counterpart Johnny Dixon, who also opted out, the Penn State defense was forced to get creative to slow down Ole Miss’s high-powered passing attack led by quarterback Jaxson Dart. The Nittany Lions were also without star pass-rusher Chop Robinson, but a lot of the nation’s No. 1 defense still took the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The remaining group, however, was without its leader, Manny Diaz, who left in December to become the head coach of Duke, and that loss was glaring.
Safeties coach, Anthony Poindexter was left in charge of the unit on an interim basis, and while he was able to construct a gameplan that forced Ole Miss into a three-and-out on its first drive and held the Rebels to a field goal on their second, Poindexter was not prepared for Lane Kiffin’s counterpunch.
“I think obviously early on we were able to get some negative plays, whether tackles for loss, whether it's zero gain plays, whether it was sacks. Those things, when you're able to keep a team off schedule and not go tempo, those are powerful. Those are powerful,” Franklin said.
Poindexter’s game plan was an aggressive one. He routinely showed six and seven, and even man fronts to Dart, sometimes they dropped out of it, but more often the Nittany Lions brought pressure.
On the very first possession, those negative plays came from Abdul Carter when the sophomore linebacker blew up Quinshon Judkins in pass protection on third down, and cornerback Cam Miller nearly hauled in an interception.
Franklin said, “So the tempo is challenging early on in the game, where we were able to get negative plays, takes them out of their rhythm. But obviously, when they're able to play with tempo and have positive plays and build on it, it is difficult to stop.”
Without Diaz there to pull the strings on the sidelines, Penn State continued to give Ole Miss the same look, and by the Rebels’ third drive, Lane Kiffin figured it out. He started to utilize misdirection to expose the overly aggressive Penn State defense and the scoring didn’t stop.
First, it was that touchdown to Caden Prieskorn, then another one.
The game plan wasn’t the only issue, and with more talent in the secondary, it might have worked. Without Kalen King and Johnny Dixon, Daequon Hardy was the only Nittany Lion defensive back with more than one year of experience, and it showed.
Kiffin was well aware of the weakness going into the game and took full advantage of it.
“So they gave us some problems there early, and really -- I mean, really kind of made it basic and said, okay, we're going to throw the ball quick because they've got really good rush, especially when they're blitzing him.”
Kiffin continued, “We said, we've got matchups -- we told them before the game last night. This game will be won on offense in the one-on-one matchups at wide receiver and tight end. You guys are going to have to win the game on offense, making plays in the passing game, and they did it.”
Jaxson Dart executed that gameplan perfectly, finishing the game 25-40 for 379 yards and three touchdowns and leading the Rebels to 540 yards of total offense against a defense that only allowed 230.8 yards per game, the fewest in the country.
Kiffin said, “I thought our players did some really good things in those situations, like those fourth downs. Then a big thing those guys do is they blitz everybody and play cover zero as aggressive as anybody in the country in certain situations. The guys were able with two speed options to pass to Quinshon (Judkins) for a touchdown, and then whatever you want to call it, Philly Special, Atlanta Special, Oxford Special. You know, it was another cover zero blitz speeder that these guys executed.”
Blitzing and forcing negative plays was Penn State’s only answer for the tempo of Ole Miss, so once the quick hitters to Tre Harris, who finished with seven catches for 134 yards, and Prieskorn started to snowball, that snowball turned into an offensive avalanche.
Safety, Kevin Winston Jr. led the Nittany Lions with nine tackles, but he also pointed to the challenges of facing an unfamiliar offense.
“When they’re doing hurry-up, a lot of guys are just getting up from making a tackle or whatever they were doing on the play. We want to have our cleats set and be on the same page, and sometimes hurry-up causes disruptions with that,” Winston said.
By the second half, as more of Penn State’s draft-eligible players remained on the sidelines, it became clear that the Nittany Lions didn’t have the talent left to compete with the fourth-best team in the SEC.
Franklin tentatively broached the subject of opt-outs, “I don't want this to come off the wrong way. I'm not criticizing, but it is what it is. It's the reality. I think about guys that did play in the game and how appreciative we are, but not only appreciative, there's an opportunity to create value by playing in games as well.”
Next season, if Penn State finishes with 10 wins, the Nittany Lions will likely be playing in the 12-team College Football Playoff, but if Franklin is faced with another bowl game scenario, then he’ll be handling it differently.
“You look at last year's game and this year's game, it was different, and we need to have some healthy discussions about that as a staff and as a team and how we want to operate moving forward.”
After this performance, it’s evident that can’t be the only thing to change about the program. James Franklin posted his fifth double-digit win season at Penn State but was 1-3 against ranked opponents, only beating Iowa, 30-0 at home back in Week 4.
With the defense struggling, Drew Allar had a chance to be the hero, but the same issues that have nagged the offense all season came to the forefront today. Allar didn’t complete a pass to a wide receiver until the fourth quarter, even with Harrison Wallace III back healthy. Allar finished 19-39 for 295 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
In the first half, it was Nick Singleton and Tyler Warren who kept the Nittany Lions in the game. Warren finished with five catches for 127 yards, including a 75-yard catch and run on the last play of the first quarter.
Allar was able, or forced, to lean on other pass catchers with the wide receivers struggling, and Franklin referenced their success when asked about the shortcomings on the outside.
"It's a combination of things. I think we're really good at tight end. That's part of it. Then we've got to be able to make sure that we translate what we do in practice consistently to the games."
Franklin will be tasked with improving that room and making a decision on his former five-star quarterback this offseason. If he doesn't change his process and make a big splash in the transfer portal, then he can expect the same result against top-tier competition in 2024.
The good news is that the CFP is expanding, but the bad news is the Big Ten is too, and with a tougher schedule in 2024, the Penn State program needs big changes to compete for one of the 12 spots. Maybe that message finally got through the Franklin, who has yet to add to his roster in the transfer portal.
It's not good enough to just be better than the rest of the Big Ten anymore. College football is more national than ever and Ole Miss is a perfect measuring stick for Penn State. The Nittany Lions came up way short.
When teams do have opt-outs, then bowl games can serve as a glimpse into the future. If that’s the case, then it’s not one that any Penn State fan would want to live in.