Posted December 8th, 2017
This is a tale of two teams, a six-year snapshot of two storied college football programs trying to return to glory.
One faced about every disadvantage imaginable and even some that had never been seen before. The other set off on a new path by choice, enjoying just about every advantage a program could have, from a fertile recruiting ground to bulging coffers.
It’s not surprising that one of them hasn’t had a single losing season in that stretch while going 50-26, while the other is 39-36 and trying to avoid its fourth straight losing season.
But what is shocking is the role reversal.
Texas — the school that logically should be winning — is still trying not to lose. And Penn State, the school that has had every reason to lose, has been oh so close to making college football’s Final Four the past two years. The Nittany Lions also are turning out significantly more NFL draft picks along the way.
How is this possible? And is there anything the Longhorns can learn from the Nittany Lions?
It turns out there are several trends that bridge the coaching transitions at both schools, including Tom Herman’s short stint at Texas. Some are intangible. Others show up in cold, hard numbers.
So why compare Penn State and Texas?
The two schools haven’t played each other for 20 years.
But both are huge universities with slightly more than 40,000 undergraduates and with very similar academic ratings. They’re both in college football’s all-time top 10 for wins, bowl wins, weeks in the Associated Press poll, NFL draft picks and more.
More importantly, each program recently endured turbulent coaching changes.
When the Joe Paterno era ended suddenly after the 2011 season, Penn State turned to Bill O’Brien. When he left after two seasons for the Houston Texans, Penn State lured away James Franklin from Vanderbilt. In that same stretch at Texas, the end of Mack Brown’s 16-year era played out. He was replaced by Louisville’s Charlie Strong, to be followed after his three losing seasons by Herman.
The huge difference is that Texas replaced its coaching legend by choice. Penn State’s hand was forced by the sexual molestation scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky that even resulted in jail sentences for some top university officials.
In July 2012, the frequently toothless NCAA handed down what seemed like a virtual death sentence for Penn State football. Those sanctions included a five-year probation, a four-year postseason ban, vacating 112 wins from 1998 to 2011, the loss of 40 scholarships and an unprecedented $60 million fine.
In addition, any Penn State player who wanted to jump ship and transfer out was allowed to do so without having to sit a season. That’s what Penn State’s leading rusher, pass receiver and point scorer — place kicker Anthony Fera, who ended up at Texas — did.
Some of those sanctions were later softened, but still should have been devastating.
“This program was brought to its knees a couple of years ago,” college football media personality Paul Finebaum recently said on his show. “The NCAA did what they did in the wake of Sandusky because they wanted to destroy it. O’Brien was there first — give him some credit. But James Franklin has elevated this program to a point I didn’t think was even possible, but it is.”
Coaching undoubtedly is big part of the puzzle, and Herman’s tenure is way too short to judge. But there are other significant pieces that cut across coaching regimes, including Herman’s.
Blue chips. And cashing them.
When it comes to recruiting, Texas has a pretty clear advantage and, on paper at least, seems to take advantage of it.
This year, according to the 247Sports composite ratings of the top recruiting services’ rankings, there are 44 prospects in the state of Texas that are 4-star recruits or higher for the 2018 class; in Pennsylvania, there are 11. So it’s not surprising that Texas coaches rarely stray outside of driving distance for recruits, no matter who the coach is, whereas Penn State now gets only one-third of its signing classes from Pennsylvania.
Since 2010 — the class signed one month after Texas’ last national championship game appearance — Penn State has signed only one class that was ranked higher than Texas’, and that was in 2017 as Texas transitioned from Strong to Herman. Texas, with three top-five classes in that span, has signed eight classes in that span that have averaged 10th nationally. Penn State’s have averaged 24th.
Yet the finished products don’t reflect that. From 2012 on, Texas has produced 13 NFL draftees while Penn State has 19, nearly half as many more.
QB or not QB
Outside of the head coach and his coordinators, few people can have more impact on a program than a quarterback. In its glory days, Pennsylvania high school football was known as the cradle of quarterbacks. Times have changed, but Penn State still manages to find The Guy at quarterback. Or, maybe the Nittany Lions are just better at sticking with Their Guy.
In the past six years, Penn State has had three main quarterbacks — Matt McGloin, Christian Hackenberg and now Trace McSorley. The starters threw 2,454 passes in those years. Everyone else, including trick plays, threw 114. In 2014, Hackenberg suffered a sophomore slump, tossing 15 interceptions and only 12 touchdowns. But he still chucked the pigskin 484 times, all but 12 times that Penn State attempted a pass.
In that same span, Texas’ main quarterbacks threw 1,841 times while others put it up 525 times. The one constant has been that if someone leads Texas in passing attempts one year, he won’t the next. The revolving door has included David Ash (2011, 2012), Case McCoy (2011, 2013), Tyrone Swoopes (2014), Jerrod Heard (2015), Shane Buechele (2016, 2017) and Sam Ehlinger (2017). And the door is still spinning. Injuries have played a role in the instability, but auditioning seems to have become the norm.
Dance with who ya brung
Just as with quarterbacks, Penn State tends to find their guy and then go with him, whether he’s a receiver or a running back. During this six-year stretch, Texas has had one 1,000-yard rusher — D’onta Foreman’s one monster year in 2016 — and one 1,000-yard receiving performance, John Harris in 2014.
During that stretch, Penn State had two seasons that featured both a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver. They almost had a third, but fell 11 yards short in 2013 when Zak Zwinak just missed having his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season.
Soon after, Penn State landed four-star running back Saquon Barkley from Pennsylvania; he ran for 1,076 yards as a freshman. Last year, as a sophomore, it was 1,416 yards on 272 carries. This year he’s rushed for 1,134 yards, has 47 receptions for 594 yards and has been deployed as a weapon on kickoff returns, where he’s piled up 426 yards and has scored two touchdowns.
In contrast, Texas signed Rockwall’s Chris Warren III in 2015. Both Warren (the No. 9-rated running back that year and the nation’s 80th overall prospect) and Barkley (the No. 13 running back and 119th overall prospect) were rated close to each other coming out of high school that year.
Warren was very promising as a freshman, rushing for 470 yards and averaging 6.6 yards per carry and had a 276-yard night against Texas Tech in his first career start, the sixth-best rushing performance in UT history and the best ever by a Longhorns freshman.
His sophomore numbers dipped to 362 yards and a 5.9 yards-per-carry average. This year those dipped again to 314 yards and a 4.4-yard average. Against outmanned Kansas on Nov. 11, he had one carry and a new position — H-back. He didn’t have a single carry the next week at West Virginia, though he catch a touchdown, and he didn’t have a carry in the season finale.
Three days later, on Nov. 27, Warren announced he was transferring. His final season, he accounted for only 71 of the team’s 490 rushing attempts, 283 of which went to running backs and quarterbacks who averaged 3.5 yards or less.
The Longhorns have a list of offensive players who have plateaued early, including running backs Malcolm Brown, Jonathan Gray and Joe Bergeron and receivers Marquise Goodwin and Daje Johnson. Currently, there are several UT receivers, including John Burt, who could be headed down that same path.
In that same stretch, Penn State would have seemed to maximize Allen Robinson in 2012 with 77 catches for 1,018 yards. The next year, Robinson, working with a new quarterback, was “held” to 97 catches for 1,432 yards.
And don’t forget about the tight ends
Even with all those 1,000-yarders, Penn State was compiling a pretty mediocre record until last year when it found a tight end in Mike Gesicki. He had 48 catches for 679 yards, when the team won the Big Ten title. His 51 catches lead the Nittany Lions this season.
Texas had tight end Geoff Swaim, who was promising enough to be drafted in the seventh round by the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 but caught only a handful of passes in his two years at Texas. Herman has said he wants to make tight end a priority, but so far has not had much luck.
Both Texas and Penn State are among perhaps the one dozen true blue bloods of college football. But Penn State often doesn’t feel it’s treated like one. Last year was a prime example when the Nittany Lions upset Ohio State and won the Big Ten title only to be snubbed when Ohio State was chosen to advance to football’s version of the Final Four.
That pales in comparison to how the alums felt their program was treated by the NCAA in 2012. Then there’s the not-so-small matter of undefeated seasons and national championships. They rarely go together at Penn State. They didn’t in 1968, or again in 1969, when the polls and President Nixon awarded the championship to Texas. Undefeated Penn State also was passed over in 1973 and yet again in 1994.
That’s a stark contrast to the fate of Texas, which since 1936 has been awarded a national championship for every undefeated season. Any guess which fan base might feel more entitled?
Students at Texas still love them some football, as long as their team is winning, tickets aren’t too hard to get and there isn’t something better to do. Earlier this year, one radio personality pleaded with students to show up for an upcoming game, even if they only stayed for the first half.
After the loss to Oklahoma State, Herman said, “I was disappointed … We’ve got to win. Everybody loves a winner. And some of that’s on us. I was disappointed that we had performed to the point where the students had that kind of apathy.”
Penn State students take their football more seriously, especially after it was all but taken away from them. They organize the whiteouts, which can make Penn State’s Beaver Stadium (capacity 106,572) one of the most intimidating, raucous venues in college football. “The only thing I like more than Christmas is a White Out,” Franklin has said.
But then, what else is there for students to get excited about at State College?
In 1990, former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight welcomed Penn State to the Big Ten by saying, “Penn State’s a camping trip. There’s nothing for about 100 miles.”
That’s still true. State College has about 40,000 residents. With a crowd of around 110,000, Penn State’s stadium is said to be the fourth largest city in Pennsylvania on game days. Where else are you gonna go? What else are you gonna do?
Bottom line: Football matters more at Penn State than it does at Texas. And that culture might be hard for Herman to change.