Remember all the way back to the 2016 Penn State football game versus Michigan? It was September 24, a date that will forever live in infamy. The Lions lost 49-10 and the results on the field were much worse than the scoreboard illustrated. Penn State was coming off two consecutive 7-6 seasons, having played in the Pinstripe Bowl and the TaxSlayer Bowl in the past two campaigns. There was little reason to believe as the team returned home mentally and physically wounded from Ann Arbor that there would be an upward trajectory associated with the program at the conclusion of the season.
Instead the Lions went on a run, winning nine games in a row before dropping a heart-breaker in the final seconds of the Rose Bowl. The loss to Michigan in 2016 can now be seen as the delineation between the struggle to regain national prominence and the rosy future that lies ahead for coach Franklin and his upward-trending program.
Fifteen months later, with just one game remaining on the schedule for the 2017 season, the team has a chance to improve on its finish from a year ago. With a win, the Lions would conclude the season with an 11-2 record and could also finish higher than the No. 7 spot as well.
Penn State enters the bowl season ranked No. 9 and it could move up to the seven spot or higher with a win, depending on how other games play out. While it is understanding that the season once appeared to be one for the ages, with two consecutive losses hampering hopes at the playoffs, this could turn out to be one of the better seasons for the team in recent history.
Over the past twenty seasons Penn State has finished with two or fewer losses only three times, all coming between 2004-2009. The surprising ride last year coupled with the dashed playoff hopes this season has made it easy to forget that a win in the final game versus Washington would make this a very special season from a historical sense.
Not Always A Definitive Straight Line Upward
It can be hard to maintain perspective in real-time when hopes for greater accomplishments are only a couple of months removed from the minds of many Penn State fans. Taking a step back, we should try to appreciate that we are living during a time of Penn State football prosperity. In the early 2000’s the program had just one winning season in five years, a 9-4 finish in 2002. Those days were once referred to as the Dark Years for the program and its coach, Joe Paterno. The positive run from 2005-2009 made many forget the struggles of the preceding years.
The turmoil that beset the team in 2011 and lingered over it for the following years was much darker than the Dark Years, while the team has managed to maintain winning records in each of the six seasons that have followed. With the success last season combined with this year, it is safe to say that the light at the end of the tunnel is now surrounding us, we are no longer in the dark looking ahead toward the light.
With a 29-21 record from 2012-2015, there was great anticipation for the future, when the team would compete for Big Ten and national championships once again. The cupboards were not just bare in terms of depth a few years ago, they were ripped from the walls and taken away by the NCAA sanctions. Cockroaches from California to Illinois were scrambling to pick up the crumbs that were left in the wake. Those days, thankfully, are back in the darkness of the tunnel with all the other unsavory moves that linger in the slimy, seldom-exposed underbelly of what can be a very unfair process used by the NCAA.
When you are in the darkness it is easy to understand why the light is so appealing, so hard not to fixate on, since it is a blinding contrast to where you are. While in the light, it is hard to see what lies back within the shadows, and is equally easy to forget that it is there. In just a few short years the Penn State football program has gone from an under-manned, heroically-achieving-mediocrity bunch of fighters, to one that could finish in the top-ten for two seasons in a row, with reason to believe that next season could be even better.
Should the progress wiggle downward next year in terms of the team’s record, with the talent that James Franklin has brought in during the past few recruiting cycles, it would be unlikely to keep the team down for very long. It’s hard to imagine that any worse-case scenarios in the near future could be as dreary as some of the the best-case scenarios were when Bill O’Brien took over in 2012.
Interesting Aspects Of The Fiesta Bowl
- Saquon Barkley will play in his final game for Penn State, as he is expected to leave with a season of eligibility remaining for a promising NFL career. There are conversations over the years concerning which Penn State running back was the best of all, or which player was the most unique. For many fans, there hasn’t been a physical enigma in uniform for the Lions similar to Barkley since LaVar Arrington wore the blue and white. Watching Barkley make plays for the past few seasons, in the manner that he has at times, is a once in a generation privilege for PSU fans. We should all soak in as much of his brilliance as our eyes can manage, one last time. It’s likely that we will be reminiscing about Barkley for the rest of our lives when the topic of which Penn State player was the best of all-time comes up.
- Seattle, Washington, home of the Huskies, is about 1,500 miles from Phoenix, Arizona. State College, Pa. is roughly 2,200 miles from Phoenix. Unlike years past, when PSU played USC in Pasadena, Georgia in northern Florida, the Florida Gators in Tampa or FSU in Miami, this is a relatively neutral site for the game. The teams are evenly matched on paper, there is no quasi home field advantage, and both programs want to follow up two strong seasons with an exclamation-point win to propel themselves into the next year. Each team has a bevy of talented players that will be fun to watch.
- With the long off-season looming following the conclusion of this game, we should all hope for an eventful Saturday. While a dominating blow-out by Penn State would be nice in some ways, it would not make for an entertaining game. Washington may not have seen an offense the caliber of Penn State’s, but the Huskies’ defense is its strength. There is a good chance that the game will be very competitive. While that may be hard on the nerves at times, it would be nice for the only meaningful game to be played for the next nine months to come down to the wire.