With the Benefit of Hindsight, I Wish I Had Said Less

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

I'm still not ready to say that was a great game, but my column was over the top.

Here's the thing about the way I write these postgame stories, designed to go up right after the clock hits zero and build off of the emotions from the previous three hours, channel the game threads and twitter banter and try and capture the mood of the fanbase: Sometimes, they look pretty stupid in the sober light of day.

I try to start writing them before the game's over, I try to spend the fourth quarter figuring out what the storyline is, what the focus will be, whether I'll be harsh in my criticism or effusive in my praise, because my goal isn't to be impartial or objective. That's why I'm a blogger, not a journalist; I'm a fan writing from a fan's perspective, and that can lend itself to good articles and it can lend itself to bad ones, and when you start writing, as I do in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way, the starting point makes all the difference.

I started writing after Illinois scored the go-ahead touchdown to take a 17-14 lead with 5 minutes left. I wrote the harshest words after Bill Belton's fumble that, I thought, would end it. And at that point, I was immensely frustrated. We all were. That game, especially the first 58 minutes of it (and most especially a forty-minute chunk of the middle of it), was just painful to watch. None of us were particularly happy with how the team had played, not at that point. The thing about playing out a season where wins and losses don't really matter, where we're not playing for bowl positioning, or even a bowl berth, is that the final score becomes less important than the way we get there, and I have trouble taking solace in a bad win as opposed to a good loss. This game stung me more than the Ohio State one did a week ago, because of just how we were getting beat, not by better players, but by our own miscues.

We were annoyed to different degrees, of course; some of us are generally less reactionary than others, some maintain more perspective--as it relates to Penn State, the dark years, the sanctions--and some seem to be those annoying hyper-rational people with their priorities in the right places, who understand that football, especially a midseason game against Illinois, isn't something to get so damn worked up about because wasn't it just a beautiful Saturday?

In short, how you viewed that game is less a commentary on the game as it is on yourself, and for better or for worse, sports have always produced a critical, impulsive response for me. Maybe it's the New Yorker in me, maybe it's the fact that I was weaned on pro sports, not the college game, where nobody's looking out for the feelings of the players, maybe it's unresolved daddy issues (pretty sure it's not that last one, but I just wanted to cover all my bases). Regardless of its genesis, at 3:06 I was annoyed and I started to write and 18 hours later I recognize that the harshness of my most misplaced criticisms detract from the legitimate ones, and unfairly malign a bunch of kids who either stood by or committed to my university during its darkest times, and a coach who've unwittingly fostered this atmosphere by making his team so damn good a year ago despite everything else going on, and by getting this team to play above their heads at times this year.

I took out the word "gutless" from the post; that wasn't warranted even when I wrote it, and, after reading some of the comments, realized that I didn't want any of the players to potentially see that. We're not journalists, we can do things like this. You know the weird thing, though? Criticizing the heart of this team was a self-defense mechanism.

When you lose a game, at least, when I've ever lost a game, or when my teams have lost a game, the worst reason possible is that we just didn't have the players to win. No, it has to be something else--maybe the refs were biased against us, maybe the coaches made some stupid decisions, maybe the other team played way above its head, maybe a few fluke bounces went the other way, or maybe the players just weren't giving it their all. Because if that's the case, we can regroup the next week, the rest of the season, go out and know we're going to play better than we just did.

If it's personnel, then you're kind of boned. And right now, the scholarship gap looms large, and the talent gap isn't really there anymore (our last few recruiting classes were relatively comparable, top-level talent aside, to a school like Illinois), and Bill O'Brien was his own worst enemy in making Penn State, if not just so stunningly competitive, so freaking fun to watch last year because it makes this reality a whole lot harder to stomach. And somehow, in my mind, it's better for a team to play bad football and lose (or win so ugly) than to be a football team with bad players and lose (or win so ugly) because one can be fixed and the other can't, and I'd rather criticize some nebulous concept of "heart" than the ability of student-athletes to excel on the football field. And what was going to cost us this game? What caused me so much agitation yesterday? It was a litany of stupid penalties, it was an offense that kept shooting itself in the foot, it was a defense that still couldn't make the basic adjustments, not the inherent inabilities of a group of kids to play good football.

I didn't play the sport at a high level, so I can't draw a direct parallel, but I know that when I was in school, and I got a bad grade, my first instinct would be to chalk it up to a lack of preparation or a lack of effort, rather than some intrinsic shortcoming. Self-preservation of the inflated ego abounds.

People often wonder why my post-game grades are so high, why, even in the wake of that rant, only one personnel group scored below a B. Here's the answer: I grade on a curve steep enough to recognize that we have less depth than anyone else in the country, that we're stocked with walk-ons everywhere, with players who wouldn't have sniffed a Penn State offer 3 years ago getting significant playing time (and with some of them, to be sure excelling). My writing, on the other hand, reflects a heightened expectation that last year, and some games this year, only fueled.

I've said this much, but if it needs to be spelled out for anyone, so be it: Yesterday was not the worst win ever, nor are our players gutless, listless cowards who didn't want to win. Given how close we were to having our football team taken away from us, maybe for four years, the mere fact that any of us are able to get so worked up, and about a win no less, is little short of amazing, and that's a testament to the work of the players and coaching staff in the two-plus years since. The next few years are going to be rocky, but we're still playing at a higher level than anyone thought likely (I was interviewed for a piece and opined that the bowl ban wouldn't matter, since given the scholarship restrictions we wouldn't win enough games to be eligible, anyway), and the worst of it will be over soon.

That said... I still miss Ted Roof.

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