I’m generally an optimistic person, especially in sports, but I’m also very pragmatic. I always try to look for the silver linings and bright sides, because the reality of the world is that bad things happen all the time, and many times they happen in ways we perceive are undeserved. When bad things happen, how you react is many times more important than what is happening.
This leads us to Penn State. The Nittany Lions, for all intents and purposes, personal fouled their way out of the College Football Playoff. Unless there’s 2007-level chaos in the next three weeks, which is doubtful (I’m pragmatic, after all), the Lions’ best hope for the season is a New Year’s Six bowl for a chance at redemption.
Penn State found itself in this position last season. Having been eliminated from playoff contention, albeit at the very last minute, they found themselves playing in the Rose Bowl in what would become a redemption game; a game to prove that they belonged with the big boys on the big stage. Penn State played in one of the most exciting games of the season, showcasing Saquon Barkley to the world. The end result though was the same. They would lose on a last second field goal, one catalyzed by a Penn State mistake, and be left with with the feeling that they could have done more.
Fast forward to 2017, and the team now finds itself with the same feeling, spread out to two such defeats. The Nittany Lions blew a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter against Ohio State, the defense letting J.T. Barrett throw the ball all over the field in a comeback effort, just like Sam Darnold did in the Rose Bowl. Against Michigan State, once again like in the Rose Bowl, a costly mistake by Penn State very late in the game led to what would be the winning field goal by the Spartans. Two games, same way to lose.
This brings us to where we are today. This team will likely finish with the same record as last season (one less loss if they win their bowl game), but it’ll feel different. Because last season’s team was not expected to be Big Ten Championship good, their deficiencies were sometimes ignored in favor of their determination. Their second half comebacks were viewed ad heroics instead of an inability to stop digging themselves into holes early. The team continued to win, in spite of its own deficiencies.
This season’s team worked hard to mitigate most of those deficiencies. Even in their two losses, Penn State has not trailed once in the first half. In eight straight games, they held their opponent scoreless in the first quarter. The defense, until the past two games, had been dominant, the offense much more effective than the year before. But, because of how the season’s turned out, it feels like this team is worse than the last iteration of itself: less heart, less determination, less desire to win, less fight. In reality, this is the same team as before, facing the same challenges it faced a year ago, not being able to correct all of them.
Unfortunately for these Nittany Lions, the two deficiencies that doomed the team last season, the inability to make a play late to seal a game, and the uncanny ability to make a mistake at the worst possible time, are the same issues that doomed them this season. This team is as great, good, average, mediocre, or bad, as it was last season. They’re better, in my opinion, and the stats bear that out:
The stats don’t lie. Penn State is largely the same team as last season, but with several areas of improvement across the board. With three games left against teams that, no disrespect to them, are terrible, these stats will likely look even more lopsided come season’s end.
The difference, of course, is our expectations. The team doesn’t look great because we were looking for national championships. The team lacks heart because the late mistakes will prevent them from winning the Big Ten altogether, instead of barely missing the playoff. The team lacks consistency because we thought the defense was unstoppable, even if it’s still well above last season’s production. All in all, the same type of season will look much worse in our eyes because we were hoping for more.
And here comes the silver lining. If you’d told me five years ago that Penn State would be 10-2* in back to back seasons, winning the Big Ten in one of them, I’d call you delusional. If you’d told me five years ago that Penn State would be bringing in top 10 recruiting classes and competing with premier programs for recruits, I’d call you a crazyperson. If you’d told me that Penn State, without shadow of a doubt, would be a player in the Big Ten race year in and year out, only two seasons after the offensive line was blocking itself in one of the worst offensive performances in years, I’d have thought you were on drugs.
Yet here we are, finding ourselves with a Nittany Lion program reminiscent of those in the 90s. We’re left wondering if the team will ever get over the hump, but seeing with our very own eyes how close they really are. We’re left with a mountain of disappointment with how everything turned out, but with confirmation that this team won’t go away any time soon.
And that’s the silver lining.
*Knocks on all the wood.