For Penn State fans, last week’s game against Michigan was huge. It was the first time ESPN’s College Gameday had been in State College for years; it was the first time Penn State, as a top five squad, hosted another ranked team in almost twenty. It offered the opportunity for Coach James Franklin to get another monkey off of his back in the form of Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan, a coach, like Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, that Franklin hadn’t beaten in his time as a head coach.
And much like the previous game in Evanston against a Wildcats squad that had til then gotten the best of Franklin’s teams in past seasons, the game on October 21 was never in doubt. Penn State got its revenge for the third time this year, demolishing and demoralizing a very talented Michigan squad, complete with an almost “Screw You” of having the backups take one more snap with one second to go, and attempting to get RB #2 Miles Sanders into the endzone to bring the score up to near what the Wolverines had posted the prior year.
Coach Franklin doesn’t forget, and he can be petty. And we, as fans of the program he coaches, love it.
This week, coming off the charged white out win, the Nittany Lions travel to Columbus to take on fellow top-ten team Ohio State, themselves off a BYE week. And despite being the higher seed, Penn State is a near touchdown underdog – and one of the overarching narratives around this game is surrounded by the Buckeyes’ need for revenge over a PSU squad that handed them their only non-playoff loss of the 2016 season, off a special teams play still called a fluke by many pundits.
This is the narrative that this Penn State squad faces headed into arguably the biggest regular season game in the 2017 season, across the board, in all of college football. The narrative that Ohio State wants, if not needs, the revenge against the Nittany Lions that the Lions themselves have obtained twice over so far this year.
But how much truth is there to this narrative?
What would have changed had Ohio State won that close white-out game in Happy Valley last season, had they been able to actually drive down the field and score in the last four-plus minutes after Grant Haley’s go ahead return? For the Lions, of course, the narrative would have been remarkably different; they wouldn’t have won the Big Ten East, wouldn’t have faced Wisconsin and won the Big Ten Championship in another remarkable come-from-behind, exciting game, wouldn’t have played one of the best Rose Bowl games in modern history behind star-reinforcing performances from Saquon Barkley and Chris Godwin.
For the Buckeyes, though – what would have changed? They still would have needed to eke out a three-point overtime victory over their MHR, Michigan, to end the season in order to claim a co-East Division title. They would have been headed to Indianapolis, to the championship game; and once there, in order to make the playoffs, they would have had to defeat, again, a Wisconsin squad that had already taken them to overtime the week before the Buckeyes’ sole loss of the regular season.
Then, if they were able to do what most squads can’t (beat the same team twice in one season), they would have been exactly where they were – in the playoffs. Yes, the big difference may have been seeding; as an undefeated team, they wouldn’t have been seeded behind Clemson, who had one loss to 5b. But who in their right mind actually thinks they would have overtaken the then-undefeated Crimson Tide as the first seed in the playoffs?
Which means that regardless of the outcome of the Penn State game, Ohio State’s best case scenario would have been to face Clemson in the playoffs – which they did. And they lost. 31-0.
What revenge do the Buckeyes really want? What scenario would they have preferred? The outcome was the same.
Over the summer, I was a guest on the podcast our friends over at Land Grant Holy Land do weekly; in the offseason, they preview all of the year’s opponents. This topic of a Revenge Game came up, and though I didn’t bring up the notion that Ohio State’s season would have ended the same way, with a bagel in a bowl (I know my audience), I did challenge the idea of revenge.
Not for Ohio State – but for Penn State.
After the embarrassing game at Michigan Stadium in week four of 2016, the Nittany Lions took care of business week in and week out, beating every opponent in front of them despite a weekly narrative that told them that that week’s game would be the one that tripped them up. Marcus Allen promised it, and the Lions delivered; they weren’t embarrassed again. They ran the table and won the Big Ten. Their prize? Narrowly missing out on a chance to settle their grievances on the field, finishing fifth in the final playoff rankings.
Who’d they miss out to? The same Ohio State team they beat head to head, and had proven themselves on the field against.
We aren’t going to rehash the arguments that have been heard ad nauseum over the past 10 months over whether or not the 2016 Big Ten Champs were worthy of being included in the Playoffs. At this point, it’s irrelevant what I, or you, or even the then-Playoff committee thought. What is relevant is the fact that the 2016 Penn State team believed themselves to be worthy. And they were left out.
Left out in favor of the team they beat head-to-head. Left out for a team that didn’t even win its own division. Left out by a program that is elite, yes, but also overshadows most other teams in the conference if not the nation.
The Lions, playing some of the best ball in the country down the stretch, watched from their hotel rooms as the Buckeye squad that they beat, that took the place that they thought was theirs, laid a goose egg in the playoffs, getting blanked by another team that lost to Pitt, looking more inept on the field than they had all year. Penn State, by contrast, took the field two days later and played a fellow hot team (who was playing virtually at home), and was up multiple scores when their arguably most effective defender left the game with an injury.
Both teams lost in the post season. Only one looked like a top team while doing so. If that isn’t on the minds of some in the Penn State locker room this week, James Franklin isn’t doing his job to the fullest. And he’s a much better coach than that.
One of the overarching narratives this week has been revenge; and it should be. But the revenge doesn’t just start and end with Urban Meyer’s squad. Penn State’s out for revenge in Columbus, too – and this game, the best of the year in all of the NCAA, will only quench one team’s thirst for payback, leaving the other to continue that narrative into 2018.