Even before No. 14 Penn State lost its last two games, Nittany Lions coach James Franklin believes his team lost its way.
The Lions (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) will try to regain their bearings in time for Saturday's homecoming matchup against resurgent Rutgers (4-5, 3-3).
Penn State followed up a 39-38 loss at Ohio State with a 27-24 defeat last week at Michigan State, and Franklin told reporters afterward that his team was "too finesse" and had allowed "a lot of noise" to become a distraction -- the latter a reference to talk of a berth in the conference championship game and/or College Football Playoff.
"We're not mature enough to handle that," he told reporters. "I don't know if anybody is, to be honest with you. We're going to get back to what I know works -- our formula."
That formula, he reiterated during a news conference Tuesday, involves focusing on going 1-0 each week.
"I'm just a huge believer in you take care of today and that will take care of tomorrow," he said. "So we are going to make sure that we get back to the formula that got us here in the first place and that I believe so strongly in."
Penn State features a dynamic running back in Saquon Barkley, but as a team the Lions have managed to rush for only 156 yards on 56 carries over the last two weeks. The Penn State defense, meanwhile, has recorded only four sacks, while allowing the Buckeyes' J.T. Barrett to pass for 328 yards and four touchdowns, and the Spartans' Brian Lewerke to throw for 400 yards and two scores.
"We're going to become a more hard-nosed team up front, on both sides of the ball," Franklin told reporters after the Michigan State game.
When asked about that Tuesday, he admitted, "It's not going to happen overnight. We've got to keep stressing it."
He added that ill health has contributed to the problem. Offensive tackle Ryan Bates and defensive end Ryan Buchholz both suffered undisclosed leg injuries against Ohio State and did not make the trip to Michigan State. Another defensive end, Torrence Brown, was lost for the season with a knee injury in a Sept. 16 victory over Georgia State.
"Hopefully we'll get Ryan back sooner than later," Franklin said.
Franklin, who typically does not address injuries, did not mention Bates' status.
Barkley was considered the Heisman frontrunner before struggling against the Buckeyes and Spartans. He totaled 107 rushing yards on 35 attempts over the course of those two defeats, but has 864 yards on the ground this season (5.7 per carry), while scoring a Big Ten-best 14 touchdowns. He is also second in the FBS in all-purpose yards per game (195.7), and leads the Lions with 39 receptions.
Quarterback Trace McSorley, intercepted three times against Michigan State, has thrown for a conference-leading 2,452 yards, as well as 19 touchdowns. He has been picked off eight times.
Rutgers defeated Maryland 31-24 last week for its third victory in four games. Running back Gus Edwards, who leads the team with 630 yards on the ground, picked up 109 against the Terrapins and caught the go-ahead touchdown pass from Gio Rescigno with 7:30 remaining.
In all, the Scarlet Knights rushed for 239 yards en route to doubling their victory total from a year ago, when they finished 2-10.
"The team changed after last season," second-year coach Chris Ash said during a news conference Monday. "We went through an awful experience last year."
During a meeting immediately after it ended, he said he and his assistants "laid everything out there about what contributed to that horrible season and what it was going to take to move forward and get better."
Despite its improvement, Rutgers is last in the conference in total offense (294.4), passing offense (127.0) and red-zone defense (29-for-32, 19 touchdowns), and next-to-last in rushing defense (179.6).
"We're getting closer, we're getting better," Ash said, "but we're still so far from what we want to be."
Copyright 2017 by the Associated Press