Paul Haynes practically sighed when he said it. The first-year Kent State coach has been tasked with preparing his team for back-to-back games at LSU and Penn State.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Haynes said. “We go from Death Valley to Happy Valley. Which isn’t very happy right now.”
The Nittany Lions have been in an ornery mood this week, particularly on defense, following their 34-31 loss to Central Florida. It was the first time since joining the Big Ten that the Lions had allowed 34 points in a non-conference game at Beaver Stadium.
They return there today to face the Golden Flashes in their final tune-up before their Big Ten schedule opens in October.
Senior leaders like safety Malcolm Willis have tried to set the tone right at the start of the week.
“Willis got in everybody’s ear after practice on Monday and let guys know we have to be on everything this week,” sophomore corner Jordan Lucas said. “We can’t let up on anything in practice. Run to the ball, and when we get there, we have to be nasty.
“He stepped up and let us know we have to get it done.”
Penn State had reversed its 0-2 start from a year ago and the defense had done its job, shutting down two struggling offenses in Syracuse and Eastern Michigan.
Senior linebacker Glenn Carson wouldn’t go so far as to say the Lions were overconfident before facing UCF. But the end result definitely knocked them down a peg.
“You’ve got to hate losing more than you want to win,” Carson said. “And that loss was humbling to us. I don’t think anyone wants to feel that again.”
Fortunately for the Lions, they go from facing an NFL hopeful at quarterback in UCF’s Blake Bortles to a raw redshirt freshman in Kent State’s Colin Reardon. The Flashes are also likely to be without All-American Dri Archer, who has battled an ankle injury since the opener.
Reardon has four touchdowns and no interceptions through three games, but the Flashes have largely played it safe with the young signal-caller, sticking mostly to short passes.
Teams have done that a lot against the Lions in the early going, getting rid of the ball quickly to try and neutralize top pass-rusher Deion Barnes.
It’s worked. Barnes has been held without a sack or a tackle for loss through the first three games.
“I think you have to look at the film closely on that, because I think he’s playing with great effort,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “He’s an excellent player. I believe people are running away from him and I think that people are giving the tackles help in protection with him. I would, too.
“We’ve got to do things to move him around and help him out a little bit. We will and we have. But Deion, to me, is playing well. I’m glad he’s on our team, I can tell you that.”
Finding ways to spark the pass rush would go a long way to getting the defense back on track. The Lions didn’t manage any sacks against the Knights, and Penn State had trouble getting off the field on third downs as a result.
Third downs remain a concern for the offense as well. Penn State converted two third downs against UCF, doubling their season total. The Lions moved up one spot in the national rankings in the category, now sitting 122nd out of 123 teams.
O’Brien acknowledged that it’s a problem, but the Lions boss hasn’t been too concerned about it because he’s more interested in the final result — the offense is averaging 33 points per game.
More than anything, O’Brien is pleased with his team’s attitude.
“What I’ve learned from these kids is that they’re resilient,” O’Brien said. “They come into the office on Sunday on their own. That’s their day off. They’re watching film, getting treatment, and are ready to go on Monday.
“Those are good things. You can really see where you need to improve. Hopefully that’s what we do. Hopefully we learn from it and we move on and we do the best we can to get a win this week.”