An hour and a half ago, Penn State players chased after and mobbed Sam Ficken, right in front of the home dugout. An hour and a half ago, Yankee Stadium roared with the cheers of 40,000 Penn State fans, and the groans of 10,000 Boston College partisans. An hour and a half ago, the Nittany Lions had just pulled off the kind of comeback, the kind of stirring win that gives a fanbase hope, and something to obsess about for the next eight months.
An hour and a half ago, Penn State's season ended as it began: with a stirring win in a foreign stadium.
But now, the field is vacant, aside from the two camera crews filming their wrap-up packages. The only people in the stands are employees cleaning up the stray cups and wrappers and ketchup packets. Even the press box is mostly empty: the beat writers have filed their gamers; the columnists are downstairs getting their interviews; the broadcast crews and bowl staff have headed home for the night. Soon, I will join them; I'll jump on the 4 train, and head back to my apartment. My season, too, will be over.
That's the thing about bowl games: No matter how great they are--and this one, despite featuring two teams that won a combined 13 games in the regular season, will go down as one of the best of the year--no matter how exhilirating and thrilling and worthwhile they can be, there's nothing left at the end but this empty, gnawing feeling. The season is over. There will be no more football after this, not for Penn State, not for a long time. This team has already ceased to exist. The 2014 team is just another one for the annals of history, now. A dozen seniors will never wear a Penn State uniform again. What's left, after the celebration?
Bowl games are glorified exhibitions, this much is agreed upon. They only matter so as to provide a footnote, a chance to say goodbye--and no other group at any other program deserved the send-off more than this bunch of fuckers. But that's the worst thing about a performance like the one Penn State had today: It'll be the better part of a calendar year before we get to see them build on it. For a year so unendingly frustrating to end with a game so invigorating just feels unfair.
I don't want to go home.
* * * * *
It's not right to bother with that sort of ironic detatchment about the game that just was. If any recap deserved to be written in the immediate aftermath of a game, it was the one I didn't get a chance to write tonight--I went down to the media room right as Ficken hit that extra point and this place exploded and, and so I'll have video for you tomorrow but a worse column right now. And for that, I apologize.
But the upshot of it all is that there's no longer any adrenaline coursing through my veins, no lingering glow from the pure, unadulterated joy of watching Penn State come back, time and time again--from down 21-7, 24-21, 30-24. From seeing an offense that couldn't get out of its way all season put together drive after drive in the fourth quarter. From being reminded that Christian Hackenberg is still Christian Hackenberg, and will continue to be Christian Hackenberg, much to the rest of the Big Ten's detriment.
This game was, for three quarters, a disaster. The defense did not resemble the one we had seen all season, the one we had so rightly anointed as the Big Ten's best, led by a coordinator we have hailed as a genius and players we have come to deify. We laughed and puffed out our chests when we were told that Boston College was a power-running team, but watched, mouths agape, as Jon Hillman and Tyler Murphy broke free, peeled off 40 yarders, pushed the pile and broke tackles. It was only Murphy's deficiencies as a passer that kept Penn State in the game, early--he missed a bevy of open receivers to stall Boston College drives, and when he started completing the easy ones, and Boston College extended their lead to 14, it seemed like a fitting end to the 2014 season.
The offense had their chances early, but were stymied by missed opportunities and maddening turnovers. The defense held its ground for so long, but couldn't be expected to pitch a shutout. The questionable coaching decisions and play calls would be brought up and argued over in the comments section. I'd call for John Donovan's firing. We've seen that script before. But as we waited, and prayed, for the season to be over, we were reminded just how much we'd miss it.
No matter how badly Penn State could lose a game--and oh, were there painful losses this season--there is something worth cherishing in the routine of three and a half hours, every Saturday, for twelve weeks in the fall.
Because when a team like this one goes off-script, there's nothing better.
We watched as Christian Hackenberg retreated into a shell this season, as he cursed out his coaches, as he made the kinds of freshman mistakes he didn't even make as a freshman. We saw a darkhorse Heisman candidate turn into a liability that the staff tried to shield and coddle and protect as best they could. But tonight, we saw a leader, a man who time after time put this team on his back and ultimately marched them to victory. We saw the quarterback we've been longing for, throwing to receivers he's needed, behind an offensive line he's craved.
And we got one last glimpse of Hackenberg Magic, to tide us over until August.
It is an obvious cliche to say that a bowl game is a springboard to the next season, but it's hard to see this game as anything but: Penn State loses so little and returns so much that time, and nothing else, can help this team blossom, help the coaching staff continue to grow alongside it. This game showcased so much that we've been waiting so long to see that it's not worth it to bother wallowing in the idea that this game doesn't matter. No, a Pinstripe Bowl championship isn't, on its own, worth a lick. But for this team, every game mattered, and for next year's team, we can hope and pray that this game, with its underclassmen heroes and its promise of a brighter future, mattered more than any other.
Who the hell knows, though.
* * * * *
We have been through a lot as a fanbase, these last few years. Among other things, we've seen one of the biggest goats in Penn State history turn into perhaps its most reliable player, a fan favorite, a cult hero. We've seen two new coaches with few Penn State ties show a commitment to honoring the memory of the man who built this program, leading with grace and class and elegance. And we've seen off three groups of seniors, each so integral to the continued existence of this program, each so necessary to get us to this game, to this win, to this state of elation.
This was a game that we never expected to play, a win we never thought we'd have a chance to enjoy. And as friend of the blog Kevin Horne wrote, we made it through the sanctions winners--not with moral victories, but real ones. Penn State has played every single game the last three years with a real, tangible disadvantage, a chip on their shoulder, a built-in excuse; and yet they have not just persevered but thrived. Tonight, they beat a team with almost twice as many scholarship players, with a veteran offensive line, with the decided advantage of experience on their side.
Tonight, the sanctions officially ended. This season began with a bowl ban and ended with a bowl win.
It's the end of an era: against all odds, a proud era in Penn State history. An era where wins on the field meant less than the culture we were cultivating off of it. An era that ended, year after year after year, with an inspiring victory in the last game and the knowledge that we would come through these unjust punishments stronger and better for it.
That's still true now, of course. Tonight gave us even more reason to raise the song for the future that we await.
I still don't want tonight to end.