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The Sky Isn't Falling

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Penn State lost to Northwestern. But it's not all doom and gloom.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been written since four pm on Saturday about this year's Penn State football team, the coaching staff, and the state of the program as a whole. There have been comments, tweets, posts and columns criticizing anything and everything, calling for everyone to be fired, and stating that Penn State as a program will never succeed under James Franklin's leadership.

This is not one of those pieces.

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In week ten of the 2010 football season, Joe Paterno's Penn State squad played Northwestern, and won. The win put the squad at 6-3 on the year, bowl eligible with six wins over the teams they should have beaten (Youngstown State, Kent State, Temple, Minnesota, and Michigan), and two double-digit losses against the ranked teams they faced on the road (Alabama and Iowa). It also included an inexplicable twenty point defeat, at home on Homecoming, against Ron Zook's fighting Illini, who, at that point in the season, were 2-2 on the year and serious underdogs rolling into Happy Valley, where they had never won before. Illinois would finish the season with a 7-6 record, buying Zook one more season in Champaign. There were no sanctions in place on this team.

Week ten of the 2013 football season saw Bill O'Brien's Penn State Nittany Lions defeat Tim Beckman's Illini in overtime at Beaver Stadium. That win brought PSU to 5-3 on the year, and the Lions, despite the victory, gave up over 400 yards of offense on the day. Remarkably, it wasn't even the worst defensive performance of the year--the Lions had just lost to Ohio State by almost fifty the week before, after all. To date, that season, PSU had already lost to a Fiesta Bowl-bound UCF squad and the eventual undefeated Buckeyes, both very respectable losses on paper--but they also got thoroughly outclassed by Indiana, losing by twenty to the Hoosiers for the first (and only) time in the program's history to a team that ended the year with a 5-7 record. And while sandwiched between the losses against Indiana and OSU was the thrilling four-overtime win over a then-undefeated #18 Michigan squad, the Wolverines would go on to lose five of their last seven games of the year, and finish the season with a 7-5 record. Not exactly a world-beating squad to hang your to-date record on.

After week ten of the 2014 football season, James Franklin's Nittany Lions were 5-4, having broken their losing streak of four games by winning an ugly puntfest against Indiana in Bloomington. The wins that squad had garnered to date included squeakers over UCF and Rutgers and blowouts over Akron and UMass, and the losses, aside from an inexplicable flat showing against Northwestern that saw the Lions lose by three scores, were all by seven points or less, to Michigan, Ohio State, and Maryland.

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Why do I bring these things up? I bring them up for a few reasons.

I see calls for a change in coaches. Some of these calls exclude defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from the sacrificial altar; some don't. Many of these calls coincide for pleas for O'Brien to come back to Penn State, or recollect days gone by of the PSU football program. Most, if not all, of these calls require one to have a selective memory of even the most recent history of Nittany Lion football.

Week ten of the 2015 football season saw Penn State lose to the Northwestern Wildcats. In this game, Penn State held Northwestern scoreless in the first quarter, but the Wildcats broke open the game in the second quarter, scoring 20 points--the first team to score first on the Lions all year. Thirteen of those points went unanswered; when the Lions first got on board, via the quick feet of freshman phenom Saquon Barkley, the home team responded immediately via a Penn State special teams breakdown by Soloman Vault taking the ensuing kickoff to the house. Boom, 20-7. The deficit felt insurmountable, based mostly on how this team had treated similar deficits. I had seen this story twice before this year; down a few scores, the Lions would roll over, and their opponents would roll up the score. We were done. The game was over before halftime.

Except, it wasn't.

Adjustments were made in the halftime locker room. The team rebounded. The defense, which had been gashed time and again in the first half, held time and again in the second. The offense, which had been held in check in every situation imaginable, overcame horrible field position and actually moved the chains in the second half--found a play (and a player) that the Wildcats couldn't stop, and ran with it.

With a few minutes left in the game, the Nittany Lion team that I had left for dead a few hours earlier was actually winning the game. If Grant Haley holds onto the interception that hit him in his hands, Northwestern doesn't have the opportunity to make the kick that wins the game, and we all drink in celebration instead of sadness. But, of course, he didn't, and the Wildcats got the next first down, and their kicker who had been unreliable earlier in the day knocked one through, and the Lions lost.

Not to say they deserved to win the game--the game was anything but perfection. James Franklin admitted to clock management errors, as well he should. But anyone who only saw negatives out of that game in Evanston is only looking for negatives, because there were plenty of positives to take--and there are plenty of positives for the season so far.

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The Wildcats were ranked 21 in the first College Football Playoff rankings last week, playing off a BYE week, at home and favored, with a 6-2 record. They came into the game with a defense that ranked in the top 20 in nearly every statistical category imaginable save rushing defense--which was still top 50. They were averaging giving up only 310 yards per game, and 17 points.

Penn State's offense, which got only 27 yards in the first quarter this week, ended the day with 362 yards. Penn State's passing offense, so much maligned behind a very bad start by Christian Hackenberg, ended up with 237--over 70 yards more than the Wildcats' average. Hack, who started the day a paltry 1 of 10, finished the day 21 of 40 and got his third interception of the year after going seven games without one.

Penn State's defense, on the other hand, gave up 396 yards to an offense that averaged 70 yards less than that coming into the day, including 111 yards through the air to a backup quarterback (169 yards total) on an offense that was the worst passing offense in the Big Ten coming into Saturday. They also gave up more yards to a true running back in Justin Jackson than they'd given up all season, with the majority of all of the yards given up in the first half, before any adjustments were made.

All of this was done, too, without the services of arguably Penn State's best defensive back, Jordan Lucas, who left the game injured in the first half, and didn't return. All of this was done through Penn State being called for more penalties (nine) than they had been called for all year, and actually having the ball longer (over 30 minutes) than the Wildcats.

The Nittany Lion offensive line let up two sacks; it's a mark of this year, of course, that that's an accomplishment, but it is what it is--but that's the Northwestern team's average, not more than their average, which is perhaps what is more surprising.

What is remarkable on the flip side is what felt, at times, like little to no pressure on the Wildcat quarterbacks resulted in six sacks of the two Northwestern signal callers--including one for Carl Nassib, giving him the single-season sack record for Penn State, with three games left on the year. Lost in the shuffle, too, is the fact that on Northwestern's second to last possession, Nassib left the game with an upper body injury, and thus wasn't an option for the Lions when the Wildcats were driving for their go-ahead field goal.

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The BYE week for the Nittany Lions can't come soon enough. It will give Nassib and Lucas, as well as everyone on the team, time to heal and rest up, and had they been better rested, and hadn't played ten straight games against a very good opponent after playing their hearts out last week, they may not have come out quite so flat.

It will also give Barkley, the offense's brightest spark, time to rest and get ready for a Michigan defense that will be keying on him. Despite Northwestern's attempts to do so from the beginning of the game, Barkley was still able to get 120 yards on the ground and 50 in the air, a large chunk of which came through the effective use of the wildcat--which is why, though it didn't work, I cannot fault the coaches too much for attempting it on the final 3rd and one of the Lions' last offensive possession. Time and again, we showed that we were going to run that play; in that formation, Barkley got the ball, and time and again, the Wildcats were unable to stop it, and Barkley got positive yards. It was the most reliable play call of the offense, and the best bet. It was an understandable call. It didn't work in that instance, but it made perfect logical sense.

At this point, right now, Penn State is 7-3. We're guaranteed a winning season for the eleventh straight year--second only to Wisconsin in the Big Ten in longest active winning season streaks.  Our three losses are all to teams that are ranked, and all were on the road--and all had Penn State winning at points, and all had the Lions in the game in the second half.

Some of PSU's former opponents, too, aren't quite so bad as the detractors would have you think; Illinois, who was destroyed last week in Happy Valley, put up 48 points (and almost 600 yards of offense) on Purdue this weekend after getting shut out a week ago. San Diego State has won every game since losing to the Lions, sitting at 6-3 and poised to win their division in the Mountain West and likely headed to that conference's championship game. Buffalo is 5-4, second in the MAC East and only needs to beat Akron or UMass to go bowling this year.

But, of course, acknowledging that goes against the prevailing narrative. Saying that the team was tired playing in its tenth straight game and being impressed that they still found a way to fight back and nearly defeat a favored, ranked opponent in an early timeslot on the road will get me called a homer. Seeing any positives, that the team is trending in the right direction and that we're building towards the future and James Franklin can make us great for that future, goes against what so many are shouting from the rooftops.

The problem is, most of those shouting from the rooftops are those who purport to be Penn State fans; many neutral site observers, those who have no dog in the fight and no preconceived bias for or against PSU, tend to see the trendline in Franklin's favor.

And right now, with the fight in the team and their heart and their energy and their skill and the improvements they've made this year over last and over the course of this season, that's my side too. I hope you'll side with me, and be optimistic. Because even though Penn State lost this week, I certainly can't wait to see where the future takes this program. I'm confident it will be towards greatness--because, at 7-3 and undefeated at home and bowl-bound and within a field goal of a top 25 team, we're already at good.