STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — A hoarse football coach put his head in his hands and rubbed his bloodshot eyes.
As he sat at a table clad with his alma mater’s colors underneath a Nittany Lions logo, Matt Rhule’s voice, while hard to hear, cut through a silent room as he addressed his team’s 30-13 loss to in-state rival Penn State, dropping his Owls to 5-5 on the season.
The former Penn State linebacker described the process of building a winning culture in a football program, and the growth his program has yet to make.
“They still don’t believe me yet how to win these games, and I’m telling them – I’m like a prophet,” Rhule said. “They don’t believe us yet, and they’ll believe us. You don’t win these games by jumping over, trying to block a field goal when you’re not supposed to.”
“You win these games by playing good, clean, tough football,” Rhule added. “You see the defense and they just play good football, and offensively, we just aren’t there yet.”
Rhule’s frustrations manifested after his team’s second-half performance, one that featured five turnovers and 24 points allowed.
Sophomore quarterback P.J. Walker, who registered 41 passing yards in the first half, said he overcompensated in the second half, committing all five of the Owls’ turnovers – four by interception and one by fumbled snap.
“I was just trying to make too many plays,” Walker said. “[I was] just not being smart with the football. … I felt like I was trying to do too much in the second half. I threw a lot [of passes] that I shouldn’t have.”
Walker’s turnovers led to 17 points for the Nittany Lions, one touchdown on an interception return, one setting up a one-play, eight-yard touchdown run by senior running back Bill Belton, and another ending in a 21-yard field goal from senior kicker Sam Ficken.
Walker’s numbers continue to decline from his freshman campaign, especially when the Owls are on the road, where he has thrown nine of his 14 recorded interceptions.
Walker, who now has thrown eight fewer touchdown passes and six more interceptions with 58 more attempts than last year, has led a team that has managed 14 points per game during its last five matchups.
Rhule said his quarterback needs to stop being careless with the football, regardless of the noise from a crowd of 100,173 at the hostile Beaver Stadium.
“It’s time for him to stop doing that,” Rhule said. “I love him, I think he’s going to be a heck of a player, but he’s got to stop doing that. … [Walker] can’t keep throwing the ball up and throwing picks. That’s got to stop.”
“At some point, you’ve got to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Rhule added. “The way you come to Beaver Stadium and win is you don’t let the noise affect you. … All of a sudden we started doing things you see teams do, we started throwing the ball up and getting penalties … that’s why you lose.”
The Owls continued their Division I Football Bowl Subdivision-worst mark on third down conversions, managing three through their 16 attempts.
The team’s 24.8 percent efficiency on third down puts it at No. 125 out of 125 FBS teams, pitting it 3.2 percent lower than the next lowest team.
“[The problem is] blocking and getting open against man coverage,” Rhule said. “We had some pressure, P.J. got hit on a bunch of those [attempts]. … And we had some that we dropped. … We have to be able to catch the football, it’s not a real complicated game. You’re open, just don’t slip.”
Now, the Owls will head into their final bye week of the season before facing a high-powered Cincinnati offense.
The Bearcats, who rank in the Top 10 in passing yards, most recently beat East Carolina 54-46 en route to their sixth win of the year, moving them to a 4-1 record against American Athletic Conference opponents.
EJ Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @ejsmitty17