It was bound to happen.
The law of averages isn’t a real theory of probability, but its practical application in everyday life certainly applies to Penn State versus Indiana. The Hoosiers have gotten very close in recent years to getting over the streak and beating the Nittany Lions; this was both the most likely and least unexpected year for this upset to take place. In fact, I’d argue that this is the best time for this streak to end, as we’re feeling the sanctions (and with the reduction coming up, this is likely the worst we’ll feel them) and Indiana’s offense has been steadily getting better, year by year, and looks to be in the "very good" category this year.
I mean, would you rather lose to Indiana in 2018 when Kevin Wilson is likely to have moved up, PSU has 85 scholarship players and will be playing at the very least for a decent post season bid?
This loss definitely sucks. But it’s nowhere near the end of the world; nor is it the worst loss in PSU history, of the 2013 season, or even, in my opinion, the worst loss in the still-fledgling Bill O’Brien era at Penn State (all arguments I’ve seen be made, whether hyperbolic or with true intentions).
Using absolutely no empirical data but purely from my own (admittedly arbitrary) ranking system, this loss pales in comparison to so many over the dark years. It’s below 6-4. It’s not as painful as 2010 Illinois, in which we looked even more inept on both sides of the ball, but were never really competitive at home, at homecoming, versus a Ron Zook-coached team.
It’s not as bad as the UVA loss last year, when we had the victory in our grasp and couldn’t get the ball in the end zone to save our lives—O’Brien’s second loss, a loss that looks much worse in hindsight (if possible) than it did at the time, as that Cavalier squad went on to go 4-8 in the ACC—and the Penn State squad that lost to them was so clearly on paper, and later in the season, a much better squad.
This loss wasn’t as bad as Texas’ loss to BYU this year, where the Horns gave up over 500 yards on the ground. To BYU. Who had lost to UVA (read: a not good team, even a year later) the week before. It wasn’t as bad as WVU getting shut out, 37-0, by a Maryland team who would get shut out themselves to FSU the next week to the tune of 63-0. It’s not as bad as losing to an FCS squad, which USF, UConn, and Oregon State all did in the same week earlier this year.
This loss wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the loss to BYE in 2011.
But I get it. We had a streak against Indiana, and the streak was broken. But that’s no excuse to make an ass out of yourself, yelling obscenities left and right at Memorial Stadium in the visitor’s section, berating the young men who work their butts off for the school that all of us represent—including you, angry unknowledgeable man with a clear chip on your shoulder who sat next to us in section 1. You’re living vicariously through these 18-23 year olds, and if that works for you, so be it—but that’s not their fault that the loss hits you that hard. It likely hits most of them just as hard, if not harder—after all, it’s their blood sweat and tears that go into it—but ultimately, we can walk away. Drown our sorrows. Not have to talk about it and relive it for the next week, have it stay on our resumes for the rest of our professional lives.
This loss wasn’t good. No loss is. And a lot of different things contributed to this loss; I’ve seen many fans point to one thing or another that made Indiana beat Penn State, and that’s utterly ridiculous. There were many things that contributed, and some of them, frankly, were down to luck.
Indiana played their butts off. There’s little Penn State can do about that. The Nittany Lions can’t control the weather, which likely played a huge part in the bad snap before Sam Ficken’s first field goal attempt. It may have made an impact on the fumble on the kickoff return which effectively ended the game—right after a questionable attempt to go for it on fourth down at our own thirty five.
Coaching is probably the biggest reason why this game ended up in a blowout. It’s fair to question coaching decisions, preparation and game planning, play calling on offense and defense. It isn’t fair to call for the firing of a coach or coaching staff that’s been here for less than two years after one loss to a team that was held to, improbably, below its season average in every statistical offensive category.
I’ve heard calls for BOB to step down, for Butler to be fired for perceived ineptitude in defensive play. Two names I haven’t seen on the "FIUR HIM!" list, though, are Larry Johnson Sr and Ron Vanderlinden—and I’d argue that their units on defense have been the most underperforming and surprising (in a bad way) squads on the field—but apparently, they’ve gotten more of a benefit of the doubt. It’s highly unlikely that they’ve forgotten all of a sudden how to coach, after all—but apparently it’s easy for us to say that everyone else has.
Listen, this is a young team. This is a young staff. In some ways, the success of last year led us to believe we’d be immune to the growing pains a change of staff (especially with a previous staff not performing as well as we like to remember--most glaringly on the recruiting trail) almost inevitably brings. We’re not. We have a head coach who’s coached a total (through this week) of 17 games. We have a young defense with only three returning senior starters (four, if you count Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, moved to linebacker) and our offense is led by a true freshman.
On paper, I understood why some believed we would contend for double-digit wins this year, be at the top of the conference with OSU. But the shock and awe and flat-out anger that we obviously won’t—we’re too young, with too many question marks—is astounding to me. As a fan base, we’re spoiled. We have too-short, selective memories, and always think that what happens to other teams won’t happen to us. In many ways, we’re right to think so; in many ways, we’ve earned the right to hold our team in higher esteem. We have a right to expect our players to go to class, to eventually graduate, to act like men on and off the field.
But a win over Indiana? A team that played great, played their hearts out, were well coached and ready to go and took advantage of everything they could? That’s not something we have a right to, not when we don’t play even half at our best, not when we’ve honestly been quite lucky the last few years to escape with victory in multiple games.
A win for Indiana against a team that has less than 70 scholarship players? Not to use the sanctions as a crutch—this loss was not because of the sanctions, but they most definitely played a part. When a team doesn’t have full numbers, the injuries (even small ones) rack up, and the coaches and staff can’t do everything they want to do on the practice field. The "dirty team", the practice squad, isn’t full of guys redshirting and waiting for the chance they know they’ll get the next year or the year after; instead, it’s full of guys walking on, who are understandably excited to don the uniform, but quite frankly aren’t going to give our first team players with as good an understanding of what they’ll be up against the following Saturday.
And as for the assertion that I’ve seen, that the previous staff often fielded teams with far fewer scholarship players than the limit? Quite frankly, that’s not the fault of this team or this staff. It’s nice if they were able to get victories, decent squads with fewer numbers and less than star-filled recruiting staffs; it also makes you wonder what could have been had they had a fully engaged staff, with every person actively recruiting, with every position filled with a coach with a proven track record rather than nepotism or favoritism—charges nearly universally leveled at the previous staff for years. It’s also an inaccurate comparison, as they also were, for many years, up against more imbalanced schedules, with a Big Ten conference that was much more lopsided towards the traditional power teams. And, frankly, why should we compare what a different coaching staff, with a different philosophy and different players, did with a different national perception of their university? This is a post-IT world. It’s an entirely different thing to wear a Penn State jersey nowadays, starting with the name on the back.
It’s an entirely different thing to wear a Penn State jersey this year than last, even, since the senior class of 2012 is what held this team together—and they had to fight every week to hold the team together. This team is now together, no free transfer period looming over them, and they quite clearly miss the camaraderie, leadership, and "us against the world" mentality of last year—because, more than last year, as the tide has turned in favor of PSU, it’s no longer only Penn Staters going after the NCAA or harping on the sanctions. And while that may be a good thing, the self-imposed isolation of 2012 obviously fostered chemistry on and off the field for the team. And that can come back—it just hasn’t happened yet, on the field at least, for us to see.
I was originally going to write about my experience in Bloomington. That, obviously, isn’t what happened. Instead, I find myself writing a virtual novel, talking our fanbase off the ledge, attempting in my own feeble way to mend the even-more-numerous fractures that an unexpected and most unwelcome loss has brought amongst our football fanbase. Ultimately, of course, how you react to this loss is up to you, just as how I react is up to me.
I choose to look forward. To see that Christian Hackenberg is learning, to expect the team (and coaching staff) to learn from their mistakes, move past these growing pains and get better, even minutely, week by week and, more importantly, year by year.
This loss was bound to happen. It may end up being better or worse, in retrospect, come December. But it won’t define this team, or Penn State, because we’re so much better than one loss, to Indiana. We’re even better than one win.
Because we are…and always will be. Win or lose.
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