As time wound down on the Ohio Stadium scoreboard Saturday evening, my mind began to wander to the large elephant in the room. Penn State had, to some degree, played with the defending champion Buckeyes for much of the game. Yet as the clock hit triple zero, Urban Meyer's squad would claim their 21st straight victory by a comfortable 28-point margin. For long stretches, the Lions had played solid football, but at the end of the night, were four scores behind the best team in the land.
I wrote after the game that PSU's margin for error against the Buckeyes was razor thin. That is, they would need to take advantage of every opportunity and avoid the self-inflicted wounds that had plagued the offense. Already up 3-0 and driving, the Lions suffered two of those errors on back-to-back plays. First, Mike Gesicki dropped a perfectly thrown pass, followed up by a Saquon Barkley touchdown run called back on a holding call. 10-0 became 3-0, and quickly 7-3, 14-3, and 21-3 before halftime.
Trailing 24-10, the Lions drove to the Ohio State 13 before being stopped on third-and-short and suffering a Hackenberg sack on fourth down. Suddenly it was 31-10, and then 38-10, with fans headed for their cars and those of us at home looking for the remote.
One way to look at all of this is to say the Lions missed chances, and they certainly did. But on the other side of the field, Ohio State, arguably the top team in the country, went through long stretches of ineffective play, but whenever a play needed to be made, Ezekiel Elliot, Braxton Miller, or J.T. Barrett was there to make it. Meyer was able to pull a struggling Cardale Jones, undefeated as a starter and leader of a national champion, and go to Barrett, himself a Heisman candidate a year ago before succumbing to injury. That is to say nothing of an offensive line that imposed its will on a very good PSU defensive front, or a special teams unit that, from kickoffs to punts, gave PSU an average starting position of their own 16. In other words, Ohio State need not be perfect, just make enough plays. Their opposition this past week seemingly needed to make every play.
Gone, but not necessarily forever, are the days where Penn State could simply show up and play with the best in the country because, well, it's Penn State. Between slipping recruiting and the nearly crippling blow of the sanctions, the Lions do not have the fire power, right now, to expect to play with the best unless everything goes perfectly.
The first step to getting back there is talent. It may be popular to say that recruiting rankings do not matter, but it's simply not the case. The best teams recruit, by in large, the best players, and they recruit a lot of them. James Franklin appears on the cusp of back-to-back top-15 classes, and potentially another in 2017 with an embarrassment of high school talent in PSU's backyard. Back-to-back top-15 classes is virtually unheard of in these parts, with three straight being truly special.
The second, and more frustrating in our world of immediate satisfaction, is patience. By now most of us are surely sick of hearing about needing to give these young players time, but especially along the lines, the steps happen in months, not day or weeks. Look no further than Ann Arbor, where Jim Harbaugh arrived on campus with 2012 and 2013 classes that were ranked sixth and fourth, respectively, in the nation, and are now upperclassmen. All he has done is turn them into a 5-2 team that has been downright dominant at times.
As frustrating as Saturday night was, it is hard not to see brighter days ahead for the Nittany Lions. Just give it time.