If you've been following Penn State Football closely this year, you are well aware that the Nittany Lions have developed into a fantastic team, a team that just narrowly missed an opportunity to compete in the third installment of the College Football Playoffs.
Coming off consecutive 7-6 seasons, Penn State has completely turned things around thanks to an explosive offense that was last seen putting up 38 points against a stingy (to put it mildly) Wisconsin defense, a young group of defensive players that have become a dominant force that regularly shuts down opponents in the second half, and special teams units that have vastly improved year over year to produce a tangible difference for the first time in several seasons.
But outside of Happy Valley, the perception seems to be different. Instead of seeing an 11-win team with two top-six victories and a championship in the toughest conference in college football, many outsiders seem to think the Nittany Lions are some fluky team that just happened to fall ass-backwards into a successful season.
If you've paid any attention to the Nittany Lions during the past two months, you'd know this is complete and utter hogwash.
This line of thinking seems to stem from the fact that Penn State scored the go-ahead touchdown against Ohio State on a blocked field goal that was returned for a touchdown. The victory that suddenly launched Penn State into the national conversation has time-and-time again been referred to as a "fluke".
A fluke would have been Ohio State's kicker slipping and falling backwards as he approached the ball, or a sudden gust of wind stopping the ball in midair as it approached the uprights and sent it hurtling back towards the field into Grant Haley's open arms. The block and resulting score happened for the same reason that most big plays occur—am combination of coaching, skill and opportunity.
Penn State clearly came close to blocking a field goal in the first half in a similar fashion, making it apparent that the coaching staff spotted something to exploit on film. The staff also put in the time and effort to identify and recruit players of Marcus Allen's and Haley's caliber, and then develop them once they signed on the dotted line. Allen spent countless hours to work on his strength and explosiveness, while Haley has done the same to become one of the fastest players on the team.
Besides, the Nittany Lions defeated the Buckeyes that night in Happy Valley because of many things that happened during the 60 minutes of action. For starters, they outscored Ohio State by 17-0 in the fourth quarter--which alone makes it obvious the victory was anything but a fluke.
They also gave the Buckeyes, who had been averaging just under 50 points a game at this point, 4:27 left to score after the now infamous Block-Six. Ohio State was barely able move the ball, let alone come anywhere close to field goal range to tie the game, before giving the ball back to Penn State on downs after allowing back-to-back sacks where the extremely mobile J.T. Barrett had no luck of escaping the pocket. In fact, Barrett was sacked six times throughout the game despite only being sacked five times during the Buckeyes’ first six games. That's not a fluke, but rather a good defense coming into its own and controlling the line of scrimmage.
But this is just focusing on one of Penn State's 11 victories thus far in the season. Consider this--during the last few weeks of the season, the Lions dominated Iowa and Michigan State by a combined score of 86-26. The week after Penn State completely dismantled Iowa 41-14 (with one of the Hawkeyes' touchdowns coming in garbage time), the same Hawkeye squad went out and beat Michigan--holding the Wolverines to just 13 points. PSU also shellacked the Spartans, who just one week prior were a two point conversion away from earning just their fourth victory of the season on the road at Ohio State.
OSU and Michigan are both outstanding teams who each had exceptional seasons, worthy of strong consideration of a spot in the top four. But to say each was head and shoulders above Penn State has no basis in reality when you look at the entirety of each team's season.
Besides, since when is winning a major game in part to a big play considered just a fluke for one program, yet seen as gritty and deserving for others? Remember when Auburn was called a "team of destiny" in 2013 after winning many close calls, especially the infamous Kick-Six that resulted in an upset of Alabama, and a once-in-a-lifetime tipped fourth-and-18 Hail Mary pass that just so happened to fall into a receiver's hands, perfectly in-stride to get past Georgia? Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime plays, why wasn't Michigan State's 2015 season discounted because of the game-winning touchdown against Michigan that occurred because a punter mishandled the snap?
The reason is simple—because teams are typically judged by the final score produced by the full 60 minutes of football. In the game of football, you can look at any tight contest and make the argument the result came down to a certain defining play. As the cliche goes, good teams “find ways to win.”
If you really want to nitpick, you can point to any number of singular plays that helped teams escape with a victory that propelled them into the Playoffs. Clemson only beat N.C. State because the Wolfpack missed a chip-shot field goal at the end of regulation (among many other close calls for the Tigers this season). A couple of weeks later, Washington scored the winning touchdown against Utah with a punt return touchdown in the closing minutes. Alabama....well, Alabama is just really that good.
Again, this isn't to take away from any of the aforementioned teams. All are worthy of, or at least worthy of strong consideration to make, a playoff spot. But to make the argument that Penn State is "less-than" or not worthy of their success is clearly without merit.
Penn State football 2016 is not a fluke. They may not have had the preseason hype of Michigan, which was well-deserved until the Wolverines offense came down to earth in the final three games of the season. They also can’t hang their hats on their recent success like Ohio State, which has rightfully earned respect as one of the top programs in college football at this point in time. But as it turned out, Penn State is a damn good football team, and you better believe they are focused and ready to prove their doubters wrong once again on Jan. 2 in Pasadena, where the Nittany Lions are supposed underdogs to a USC squad with two fewer wins and one more loss.
What, exactly, is fluky about that?