Throughout the 2014 season, I couldn’t escape the unshakeable feeling of déjà vu. Everything just seemed so gosh darn familiar, like I had previously witnessed the entire season play out already.
The season starts out with a few promising wins, and the fanbase grows optimistic that something special is in the air- "This year things will be different. This year we show them what Penn State is made of."
Then, the team loses to a mediocre opponent and things spiral from there. The losses begin to pile up, including painful defeats to teams deemed as "inferior."
The young offensive line can’t get any push, dooming the running game. They also can’t keep the quarterback upright, dooming the little hope of counteracting with an aerial attack. The quarterback, once viewed as a darkhorse Heisman candidate, puts up numbers that place him near the bottom of the Big Ten. The youthful wide receivers just can’t quite get on the same page as the quarterback.
Overall, an inept offense sinks to historic lows. As the weeks pass, fans lose faith that they will ever see improvement. Each game brings more of the same- no ability to move the ball, no big plays, enough mental mistakes to make you pound your head into a wall. A touchdown deficit feels more like the team is down by 21 points. A double-digit deficit is basically insurmountable.
On the opposite end, fans are blown away by an unexpectedly dominant defense. Not just a suprisingly good defense, but among the tops in the nation. Somehow, they come out each week and shut down even the most explosive offenses. Teams can’t run or pass against them. They churn out three-and-outs despite constantly being on the field. If not for consistently being put in poor field position and getting worn down because of the flaws of an ineffective offense, they damn well would likely be ranked as the best defense in the nation.
Fortunately, the season ends on a positive note, providing optimism that the momentum will carry over to the next season where the team can make a huge leap and shock everyone outside of State College.
This description isn’t necessarily about the 2014 team nor the 2004 team- it’s an interchangeable account that fits both squads, because basically, they were one and the same.
We are all now aware that the frustrations of 2004 blossomed into something truly beautiful the following fall. All of the heartache suddenly was forgiven, as it helped build a championship team that gained experience as they learned on the fly and figured out how to deal with adversity. The shortcomings allowed them to identify their strengths and weaknesses while gathering plenty of bulletin board materials (much which came within its own fan base) to shock the world in 2005 and prove that you can’t simply hold a good program down.
We witnessed the negative side of history repeating itself in 2014. Now will we enjoy the opposite spectrum where the 2015 gives us déjà vu of the beloved 2005 campaign?
It may seem unlikely, but there are plenty of similarities to suggest we may once again be in store for a magical ride back to the top. Penn State returns just about everyone, and the young players who struggled when they were forced into early action now have the opportunity to blossom with plenty of valuable experience under their belts. The offensive line returns after a full offseason to gel, as well as spend in the weight room to prepare for the rigors of a Big Ten schedule. The dominating defense is mostly back and ready to shine with help from an improved offense.
It certainly won’t be easy to repeat the magical ride of 2005. Just like the summer of 2005, Penn State finds itself out of the rankings with little fanfare from a national perspective. And just like 10 years ago, a suggestion that the Nittany Lions will be conference champions and contend for a national title would likely result in someone thinking the airflow of oxygen has been cut off to your brain.
The road will not be easy. Just like in 2005, Ohio State is rightfully viewed as the unstoppable force in the Big Ten that can already clear space on is trophy case for another conference championship. Also, the season-ending contest against Michigan State is now against a perennial power, rather than a team that self-destructs at the midpoint of the season and basically packs it in by season’s end. And while Penn State has a great chance to build early momentum and be viewed as a favorite in most of the games, there are still too many unknowns to think of many, if any, games as "guarantees."
Penn State has plenty of internal challenges in addition to finding a way to somehow surpass two powerhouse programs within its own division. Namely, the offensive line must gel. The team will also need to rely on a handful of young players to rise up and perform at a level far beyond their years. If they manage to accomplish both, it will produce a domino effect that allows a meteoric rise where an inept offense blossoms into one that racks up points, backed by a stingy defense that makes opponents earn every single yard.
A nearly unblemished record seems extremely unlikely for the 2015 squad at this point, and should in no way be a reasonable expectation heading into the season. However, we can always hope that the déjà vu we experienced last season will repeat itself in much grander fashion from 10 years ago.
The 2005 team taught us the importance of dreaming big and keeping hope alive. Maybe, just maybe, the stars align once again and Penn State finds itself spending New Year’s Eve battling it out in the College Football Playoff with a Big Ten Championship in tow. Anything can happen, right?