So, I kind of promised I would try not to react so negatively again, and the only other option is apathy, so, I repeat myself:
That's a choice we all have, now, and it's the only one we still have. Here's Door Number One: We can give up and watch these games with the detached irony that comes from watching a bad football team play meaningless games, and try and enjoy the communal nature of it all, crack some jokes, and hope to get a good laugh about it all. And then there's Door Number Two: Stay emotionally invested, for some reason. Keep caring about this football team, keep working ourselves into a frenzy over all of its faults, keep getting despondent and exasperated every Saturday for the next month (and thankfully, there's only a month left). Or there's the novel concept that we could spend our weekends doing something productive, but let's be honest, that's not going to happen.
I won't proclaim to speak for everyone else, but as much as I wish I could take the blue pill, there's simply no turning back. I'm stuck with this team for better or for worse, and this season has been "worse" on almost every single level. Thank god for Al Borges, because if it weren't for that Michigan game, this would've just been an entire year of drudgery and vexation. Thank god for those three hours of this football season that didn't suck. And true, that Michigan game was almost as fun and exhilarating as to make up for the absolute agony of watching the other eleven--if one game could ever salvage a season, that would have been it. But success is fleeting and failure is enveloping and so this season has just been a draining, dispiriting, painful trudge to the end of it.
I suppose I should start writing about this game, now, though it followed the same script that we all could've predicted, if we weren't so blinded by our optimism that maybe this week would be different. Early on, the offense was on the wrong side of mediocre, the defense impossibly bad, and by halftime, the Twitter sniping amongst Penn State fans was more interesting than what was happening on the field. Maybe we should've known that we were in for a long afternoon when Bill Belton fumbled the opening handoff--not the first carry, but the handoff itself, never quite gaining control of the ball, and though Penn State's defense was able to get off the field that time, thanks to a third-down drop, Belton had quickly spotted the Gophers three points, a lead they would never relinquish.
The story of the game, as has been the story of the season, was third downs. Penn State's offense couldn't stay on the field, Minnesota's couldn't get off it. The Gophers didn't punt once in the first half; when they couldn't convert on third down they did on fourth. They put up 24 points on four drives, one of which started inside their own three. It was perhaps the most agonizing performance yet from John Butler's unit; against Oho State we could at least point to a decisive talent mismatch; against UCF it wasn't even this bad, and that offense is damn good in their own right; against Indiana, well, they poured it on late when the game was already out of hand. We know that this Minnesota team is a surging one, a surprising one, a 7-2 group that's well-coached and efficient and smart, but even in the midst of these sanctions, they should not be able to so systematically dismantle this Penn State team.
And yet, they did, and for as much as Bill O'Brien has sought to take the heat off of his friend and defensive coordinator, it's hardly unreasonable to question John Butler's continued employment. The second-half turnaround was heartening, surprising, and a huge relief, but, frankly, an outlier and a red herring, since Minnesota went into a shell to hold on to the two-touchdown lead that Penn State never cut in to. It's nice to know that the defense has it in them to play at such a high level, but those stretches of competence have been few and far between throughout Big Ten play.
The offense, on the other hand, never came out of its funk, and if there are fingers to be pointed, it's at the O. Christian Hackenberg and co. went three full quarters before converting on a third down attempt; even after Minnesota handed Penn State a free first down with a roughing the kicker, the ensuing series stalled after a few Brandon Felder drops and a fourth down throw to Zanellato that sailed, and with most of the fourth quarter still to go, this one seemed pretty much over. Allen Robinson was held mostly in check for the first time all season, and even managed to give us all a scare when he briefly left the game with an apparent arm injury; though he returned to action, he was hardy his usual dynamic self. Needing just 42 yards to break Bobby Engram's Penn State record for receiving yards in a season, Robinson didn't hit the mark until the fourth quarter, when he once again came alive, but for the first time all season, he seemed visibly frustrated with every pass that wasn't thrown his way, and honestly... why shouldn't he be?
There was some good news: Zach Zwinak turned back the clock to 2012, after Bill Belton's newfound inability to hold on to the ball forced O'Brien back to the OG fumblemeister (now with gloves!), and rumbled for his second hundred-yard game of the season, but that didn't matter much, since Penn State retained a two-touchdown deficit throughout the second half that forced O'Brien to dispatch with even the pretense of a running game. And after Penn State threatened to once again make this a game, driving inside the red zone with under 10 minutes left, a troika of heinous play-calls and a terrible throw by Hackenberg on fourth down led to a turnover on downs. The defense held, and Hackenberg had another chance to make this a one score game but he fumbled on the exchange, and so with about 7 minutes left in the game, this maddening, painful, frustrating game was finally, unequivocally, over. The worst part about this game was that Minnesota never could close the door, and yet neither could Penn State open it, and so the end was almost a reprieve.
Quarterbacks: C+. Hackenberg wasn't awful, but he struggled to find any semblance of a rhythm early and failed to make the big plays late, and he looked far too little both to his star wide receiver and any of his tight ends. The fumble on the exchange at the goal line on Penn State's last drive was the worst of it.
Running Backs: A-. For the last 59 minutes and 50 seconds, this unit was pretty spectacular. Zwinak and Belton combined for 197 yards and over 6 YPC on the ground, and Belton even took a screen pass 30 yards. The fumble was an early dagger, but if Penn State can actually use both running backs effectively, they can have success moving forward.
Receivers: C+. Hack only completed 14 passes, and fully half were to Allen Robinson. Brandon Moseby-Felder, by dint of being shut out, had infinitely more drops than catches. Nobody else got open, much. The matter of the disappearing tight ends might be a chicken-egg scenario, given Hackenberg's struggles.
Offensive Line: B+. Hackenberg was sacked once, and only sporadically under any pressure. The running backs had huge holes to run through. Tough to find much fault with the performance of the OL today.
Defensive Line: B+. Philip Nelson was sacked once (welcome back, Deion Barnes), Minnesota's runs into the middle of the line were shut down, and the pass rush was solid throughout the second half.
Linebackers: C-. Not only did Minnesota have tons of success running the ball to the edges, and not only were Penn State's linebackers barely better than traffic cones in coverage, but this unit even had trouble wrapping up ballcarriers when they had easy tackles lined up ahead of them. A dark day for Linebacker U.
Defensive Backs: C-. The fate of the safeties are another chicken-egg thing: Are Ryan Keiser, Malcolm Willis, and Jesse Della Valle so bad that playing them within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage is that much of a liability, or are they just giving receivers that much of a cushion down the seam for the hell of it? A better day for the corners, though: Adrian Amos was solid, though, and Jordan Lucas wasn't targeted all that much.
Special Teams: B+. Alex Butterworth downed two punts inside the five! And drew a roughing penalty! Okay, his other punt was a 24-yarder, but two out of three ain't bad. Ficken hit his only attempt, a chip-shot, and there were no big returns on either side.
Coaching: C-. There's not much to be said, here. Penn State came out so flat defensively and finished so poorly offensively that neither unit can feel particularly confident moving forward. And Bill O'Brien was uncharacteristically timid, punting early on 4th and 1 from near midfield and then kicking a field goal on 4th and 1 from inside the ten. We knew the loss of Matt McGloin would hurt the offense, but it's not just his experience that's lacking, it's his leadership.