On Saturday night before a crowd filled well beyond Beaver Stadium’s capacity, the ninth ranked Penn State Nittany Lions squared off against the fourth ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in a contest of American football in State College, Pennsylvania. After a back and forth battle befitting of two historic programs, the Buckeyes stole victory from the jaws of defeat, silencing a White Out crowd. I have several thoughts, which are set forth randomly below:
- Like many of you, I watched this game surrounded by family. Either they went to Penn State, or their money and kids did. The Collyer/Simpson Family investment in Penn State is substantial.
- Like most families who have invested time and energy in Penn State and its football program, we hung on every snap, every yard, every inch, every spot. No surprise there - with two top ten teams battling for a significant advantage in the Big Ten East (and potentially College Football Playoff) race, 110,889 fans in Beaver Stadium and millions watching on their televisions all must have been on the edge of their seat.
- This did, though, feel different to me this year in a way that I certainly didn’t anticipate. For years, the Ohio State game (and others of similar stature on the annual schedule) made me anxious. But this year, that anxiety just didn’t exist.
- That’s...weird. This was quite possibly the most significant home game for my alma mater in my favorite sport in the last decade. Only MIchigan 2017 rivaled it, and the build up and energy dedicated to this contest blew that one out of the water. In a tight game in the fourth quarter against a rival...
- Yes, a rival.
- ...I should have been anxious. But I just wasn’t. And when the clocked ticked down to zero and Penn State was on the losing end, I still didn’t feel anxious. I think the fact that I wasn’t uncomfortable was the only thing that actually made me uncomfortable.
- I’ve spent the last several days trying to figure out what that means and how to express it in this space. And I think I finally have it. A tip of the hat to Bill Connelly, the SBNation mothership’s resident robot, who put things in perspective in a worthwhile read on Monday morning - “How does Penn State go from ‘great’ to ‘elite’?”
- That title, of course, stems from James Franklin’s heavily discussed post-game press conference in which he gave a rousing speech, clearly directed to the significant number of top level recruits in the back of the room, about his dedication and promise to push Penn State from “great” to “elite.” It was fine oratory and James Franklin can make players run through a brick wall. I’m sure it was effective and served its purpose for the guys in the back and the guys currently in the locker room. The distinction between “great” and “elite,” though, is somewhat beside the point.
- Defining “elite” is just too soft for me. Who is elite? Alabama, for sure. Hell, from the looks of it, we might as well just give them their own trophy and let the rest of us play for something a bit more beautiful. I recommend this:
10. Otherwise, I don’t think about “elite.” I do think about the standard set by the competition that we have to meet in order to remain relevant. Relevance is the great need of the hour - relevance to the conference title race, relevance to the Playoff picture. Hang around long enough and good things will come your way. Unfortunately, until now, our great successes have been fleeting. That may begin to change now.
11. As longtime readers know, I stepped foot on campus in the fall of 2002. That September, I watched with 110,752 other people as a Penn State team set a standard that it would be unable to meet once again until the fall of 2005. But even once Penn State emerged from the Dark Years, Big Ten Title and Orange Bowl Trophy in hand, there was still a bigger mountain to climb.
12. Ohio State has been that mountain since the moment I stepped on campus. They are the standard by which every Big Ten program is judged. If a team is good, we wonder if they can match up with Ohio State. If a team is down, we measure the distance by how far that team is from competing with Ohio State.
13. No one wants to admit this, but if we’re honest with ourselves, Ohio State has simply dominated the Big Ten for the better part of 16 years. They have two national championships, four title game appearances, and a Heisman Trophy to show for it.
14. Penn State has often been the thorn in the Buckeyes’ side during this run. It bested Ohio State for Big Ten Championships in 2005 and 2008 and won the Big Ten East over them in 2016 en route to winning a third Big Ten Title over Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions also won the 2011 game in a match up of scandal-plagued teams (though one of those scandals was undoubtedly worse than the other), and took Ohio State to the limit in 2002, 2003, 2014, and 2017 before ultimately falling.
15. Starting in 2002, I judged Penn State based specifically on how they matched up with Ohio State. Outright wins were a rarity - the sign of a year that would be so memorable that they would be posted on the wall underneath the luxury boxes on the east side of Beaver Stadium.
16. For the last 15 years, that anxiety was most pronounced during each season’s Ohio State game. You live and die with each play and hold your breath before every snap. You pray for everything to go right, because failing to take advantage of a missed opportunity means that a once in a blue moon special season have fallen by the wayside.
17. I’m not sure Penn Staters understand exactly how special Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley really are. I’m not sure we’ve come to grips with how meaningful they have been to this football program.
18. In July 2012, Penn State was left for dead. It was supposed to be at least a decade until the program was back up and running remotely, if it ever would happen at all. Bill O’Brien and James Franklin defied expectations for several years, but there was little doubt that Penn State, despite its successes, had a long, long way to go to get back to the top of college football.
19. Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley deserve their own wing in Penn State’s All-Sports Museum. Their existence covered up many deficiencies generated from years of bad PR and missing scholarships. In 2016, those two and some timely special teams play got the team over the Ohio State hump and into the Rose Bowl. In 2017, those two won Penn State a Fiesta Bowl Championship.
20. Still, though, the feeling that Ohio State was just better was inescapable. Part of the reason that the 2016 win was so meaningful and memorable is because it was so unexpected.
21. A year before, the Nittany Lions, with their five star quarterback and superstar wide receiver, took a 28 point shellacking from the Buckeyes. Barkley and McSorley and their brethren put Penn State well ahead of schedule.
22. In 2017, despite transcendent talent on both offense and defense, Penn State still fell in Columbus. Given the overmatched lines and lack of sufficient depth, a fourth quarter rebound was, unfortunately, unsurprising.
23. Saturday night, though, something was very, very different. It wasn’t the White Out, although that was truly spectacular. It wasn’t Game Day, although that was very cool too.
24. No, Saturday night was different because for the first time since 2002, Penn State actually looked like Ohio State’s equal.
25. On the first three drives, Penn State put up over 150 yards of offense. During the entire first half, Penn State had generated about 300 yards of total offense.
26. And that was just the offensive side of the ball. Most of us had predicted these teams would score somewhere in the 40s. And yet, midway through the second quarter, Penn State hadn’t given up a score to the Buckeyes’ vaunted offense.
27. Penn State didn’t need trick plays or gimmicks. Instead, this young and relatively inexperienced Penn State team looked at Ohio State and won the battle at the line of scrimmage.
28. For the first time, I finally saw the Penn State I have been hoping to see for almost two decades. A Penn State that has recruited difference makers across positions. A Penn State that can match Ohio State in most respects. The anxiety has vanished.
29. So yes, Ohio State won this game. In games between two good teams, one inevitably loses. So is the way of the world. In 2016, it felt like Penn State got away with something by winning that game. In 2018, Penn State belonged.
30. Good enough for me.
31. Admittedly, this may take a bit to get used to. I’m not even sure the coaches felt that way until midnight. Some of the play calling seems to bear that out. I have to say, it occasionally felt like we were too cute on offense. We had success running McSorley and throwing all over the field. We didn’t need the Lion package and the threat of the double pass or the failed two point conversion play. Running the offense was effective enough on its own.
32. Boy, those dropped passes are total drive killers. Consider the first drive - Penn State is moving the ball at a good clip, but on 3rd and 9 Juwan Johnson sees a pass hit him square in the hands. It would have been a big gain; instead, Penn State punted.
33. I mentioned the offense generated 150 yards on the first three drives. What I neglected to mention is that Penn State scored just 3 points. That kind of stuff will kill you.
34. I don’t envy officials whose job it is to spot the ball, but it’s an inexact science and I’m certain they have invented technology sufficient enough to resolve this problem. Can we please put a chip in the ball or something so we can stop looking at Ohio State failing to get a first down, yet see the markers change anyway?
35. KJ Hamler is so damn fast and, as evidence by the 93 yard catch and run, is a threat to take it to the house each and every time, even against the best teams. Incredible game by the redshirt freshman, and he was sorely missed at the end of the game.
36. Hat tip to Pat Freiermuth, who showed off some pretty impressive hands by coming down with that touchdown with a defender draped all over him.
37. Juwan Johnson - catch of the year or catch of the decade? Just incredible. That’s the Juwan we all expected to see heading into the season.
38. Of course, the receiving corps is still plagued by the drops. I can’t imagine how you coach that out of these guys. It’s literally their job to catch passes from Trace McSorley, so, you know, go catch those passes.
39. Ultimately, targeting Hamler paid big dividends for Ohio State. I truly believe that the offense looks completely different with him in there on the final drive. He’s a difference maker.
40. What can we say about Trace McSorley that hasn’t already been said? Big play after big play after big play. We’re very spoiled. Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford look great, but it will be hard for either of them to replicate Trace’s innate value.
41. The last play was so anticlimactic that it felt like there should have been another set of strategic plays to run so that Penn State could get the ball back. Super odd feeling in the stadium - hard to believe that it all ended so suddenly.
42. Great work by the defense for the most part on Saturday. They’ve had a rough go in some ways during some parts of the early season, but they really came together for Ohio State. Unfortunately, Penn State’s aggressive tendencies were used against it with the screen game that ultimately proved to be the Nittany Lions’ undoing.
43. On 4th and 5 late in the final quarter and Penn State up 26-21, Blake Gillikin kicking seemed like a no brainer, even down at the Ohio State 37 yard line. The punt was perfect and downed at the four yard line with Dwayne Haskins and the OSU offense butting up against the raucous student section. I said at the time that if they scored here, they would have earned every bit of it. I still believe that’s true. Sometimes you have to credit the other guy.
44. I remain unimpressed by Mike Weber, I don’t care how great his yards per carry looked.
45. I should have known the Black Eyed Peas would signal complete disaster. 26-14 Penn State and “I Gotta Feeling” hits the speakers. And so, of course, Ohio State scored on a wild play to get themselves back into it almost immediately afterward.
46. I’m still waiting for someone, ANYONE, to tackle Binjimen Victor. Are you kidding me with that run?
47. I have to come back to this. Trace is your guy. I appreciate Coach listening to Random Thoughts and giving Miles the football, but on 4th and game for 5 yards, put the ball in your playmaker’s hands to get across the line. Win or lose, I roll with Trace. Imagine Lebron as a decoy on the final play of Game 7. No? You can’t? Oh, surprise.
48. Saturday was the ceiling. The first half against Pitt was the floor. This is a team that, if it plays to its ceiling, should go 11-1. I still expect one more loss somewhere down the line, if only because dropped passes and inopportune fumbles and silly penalties just ruin drives and, eventually, games.
49. There’s no better time for a bye week than now. Take a rest, get all the negativity out of the system, then get this train rolling against Sparty in two weeks.
50. But for the rest of us, the bye week sucks. No doubt about that.
51. I don’t know about elite, but I know that Trace McSorley won’t let us down for the rest of the year. I can’t wait to see what he has in store.
52. On to...nowhere. Embrace the #chaos.
53. We are ...