Don’t be fooled by the final score.
Because the Penn State Nittany Lions certainly are not.
Despite a 53-point margin of victory, despite carving up a Kent State team that crumbled like a cookie, despite new records by quarterback Trace McSorley and his third-string backup Sean Clifford, the Lions aren’t ready to call themselves kings just yet.
“There are a lot of areas for improvement,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
After a 63-10 victory that thoroughly delighted Beaver Stadium?
For emphasis, Franklin trotted out a short list of concerns.
For most teams, that might seem like a coaching ploy to maintain focus on the next game.
For Penn State, it hit home.
“I think it does,” Penn State offensive lineman Ryan Bates said. “This is a mature football team. Good football teams, no matter what the score is, they’re always looking to improve somewhere.”
The Lions don’t have to look hard to find more than a few faults with themselves.
An early 56-yard touchdown strike from McSorley to KJ Hamler was erased by a holding penalty on the offensive line in a scenario that became a recurring trend.
“We had three penalties that took three touchdowns off the board,” a flustered Franklin pointed out.
They had problems on defense stopping the big play early, and got burned for a 47-yard touchdown pass that tied the score 7-7 in the first quarter. And they were fortunate Kent State got a little rough, first with the punter and then with the quarterback on plays that drew 15-yard flags and led to the first two touchdowns for the Lions.
“There are times when we look like a Super Bowl team,” Franklin said. “And there are times we’re hurting ourselves and our opponent had nothing to do with it.”
Sometimes, those words ring a little more hollow after a 53-point victory than they do, say, after a six-point overtime win against a huge underdog like Appalachian State in the season opener.
Not for Penn State.
“For me, no,” Bates said. “No matter if we win by 100 or by one, there are always things to work on. We’ll see what we did from the film and make corrections on it.”
Running back Miles Sanders doesn’t need a tale of the tape to tell him he had his own problems.
“Just being more physical,” Sanders said. “You can’t ever be too physical. I had a drop today. And my goal is to come out with no drops, in order to be a complete back.”
Make no mistake, the Lions weren’t languishing over a lopsided win as if they’d just lost.
“I think we’re doing a heck of a job right now,” Bates said.
The Lions had too many positive plays to keep them from pouting, including McSorley’s three touchdown runs to break Darryl Clark’s career record for Penn State quarterbacks running into the end zone and Clifford’s 95-yard touchdown pass to freshman Daniel George — which broke by three yards the previous school record for the team’s longest scoring strike that stood for nearly 100 years and was set by Walter Hess against Pitt in 1919.
But this is 2018 Big Ten football, and the Lions are heading into conference play quickly, starting at 9 p.m. Friday with a game at Illinois. It’s where one holding call brings back a touchdown, one dropped pass out of the backfield in a big moment or a blown assignment in the defensive backfield can mean the difference between victory and defeat. And between entertaining national title hopes, or not.
“There’s a certain standard we want to compete at,” Scott said. “Whether we win by 60 or win by one, guys are always attacking film, asking, ‘How can I be better?’”
It’s the best approach for a program tying to re-establish itself as one of the best in the nation, one that hasn’t finished at the top of the college football world for the past 31 years.
While their fans flew into a frenzy over Penn State pulverizing an inferior opponent, the Lions aren’t ready to lay claim to power just yet.
They have come a long way, even from the season opener two weeks ago.
But their lack of focus and consistency insists they still have a long way to go.
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski