The game is over, even if the heartbreak still lingers. Days later, the loss to Ohio State still stings. For the second consecutive year, Penn State allowed a late comeback that resulted in a one-point defeat, putting a division title, conference championship, and first-ever playoff appearance in jeopardy. I could go on and on about the loss, but that’s been done by now. The coaches and players will pick up the pieces, learn from mistakes, and move on. And so should we.
There is way too much to look forward to this season to let one devastating loss define it. A year ago, Penn State had to travel to East Lansing the week following the emotionally-draining loss to Ohio State. This year, a well-placed bye week gives everyone a week to lick their wounds and come back determined as ever. Based of James Franklin’s fiery-post-game rhetoric, there’s no doubt that is exactly what is set to happen.
First off, Penn State has a decent shot of going 11-1. There shouldn’t be a game the rest of the way that they are not favored, and a month into the season, the schedule no longer looks as difficult as once perceived. Michigan State hasn’t looked like a Big Ten contender as many thought heading into the season. They have yet to have a truly impressive outing, and were upset by a 3-2 Arizona State team in week two. You can say the same, and then some, about Wisconsin. The Badgers entered the season at #3 in the AP Poll, only to plummet after a loss to a just average BYU team. The Badgers were also outplayed by Iowa recently, before a late drive and a turnover helped them score a 28-17 victory.
Speaking of Iowa, they will be traveling to Happy Valley this year and sparing the Nittany Lions a trip to (insert spooky sounds here) KINNICK AT NIGHT! There is a trip to Ann Arbor, which many fans feared as Penn State’s toughest outing prior to the season. Nearing the midpoint, I can verify that is not the case as Michigan’s offense remains hot garbage against any defense with any semblance of competency.
Winning out the rest of the way will not be easy. But the daunting six-game stretch that began with OSU and ends with Wisconsin suddenly looks less intimidating. If Penn State can stay relatively healthy, play close to its potential and eliminate mistakes, there’s no one remaining on the regular schedule that should beat them.
An 11-1 season is still better than most of us had hoped for just a month ago, and means anything is still possible. Sure, the loss removes control of the team’s destiny. But be assured that chaos looms in college football throughout October and November, and it’s fun as hell to watch it all unfold while cheering against any team ranked ahead of Penn State. Don’t just cheer on the Nittany Lions, but look for the potential upsets that can help vault Penn State further up the rankings and closer to the top four. While the Nittany Lions are resting this weekend, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and LSU could be on upset alert. Cheer against them (actually, cheer against Notre Dame every week), and enjoy the complicated puzzle that will eventually spit out four playoff participants.
While an 11-1 outcome seems more likely than I thought a month ago, what is Penn State slips up and drops another game or two? There’s still much to be excited about. The roster is littered with young players who continue to grow each game and are on an apparent path to stardom. KJ Hamler is already there. Pat Freiermuth has the look of a future All-American tight end. Micah Parsons and Ricky Slade are showing flashes, both offering a glimpse at dominating performances yet to come.
While the future is bright, let’s not forget about the present. We have at least seven more games to watch Trace McSorley, who is somehow set to go down as Penn State’s best-ever quarterback. We all expect him to come out each week and offer a gritty performance, but he is about to somehow exceed expectations. It’s just what he does.
Think we saw the best of McSorley already? Just wait until he gets to wash the bitter taste of defeat out of his mouth while exacting revenge against Michigan State. Or a pivotal game against Wisconsin with a trip to the Rose Bowl or playoffs still on the line. Or when he gets another crack at Michigan in the Big House. Heck, right now McSorley is probably simultaneously doing curls, watching game film, and rescuing a box of puppies from a burning building while repeating ‘49-10, 49-10, 49-10’ over and over in his head.
The loss to Ohio State is about as bad as they come. They gave up a late lead and no longer control their destiny against the team that they just can’t take down as the pinnacle of the Big Ten. Worst of all, there were at least 10 small moments where you can point to that swung the game for the Buckeyes. The “what-ifs” are never-ending. However, it’s in the past and nothing will ever change that. In the end, 2018 can and will still be a very special season that we all remember fondly.