The last time Penn State football took the field was nearly nine months ago, just short by a couple of days, December 30, 2017. The Blue-White game broke the wait for football to return in half and provided fans the opportunity to see some of the players that will wear the Penn State uniform for the first time this season.
It has been a relatively mild off-season for the Lions. As always there were rumors, expectations, and a few surprises as players left and joined the team. Or in Manny Bowen’s case, rejoined the team after previously leaving for disciplinary reasons.
All in all, James Franklin and his team are ready to go. The fans have been ready since January. Now only a few days separate us from the game we so love to watch.
The Speculation Season
During the sometimes grueling nine-month hiatus, there is little tangible news to discuss among those who thirst to keep the conversation on the topic of football. Signing day comes and goes in February and of course there is the news of players that plan to join the team in the near or distant future to keep us occupied during the long wait between kickoffs.
The off-season in recent years has turned into a time when sports reporters and fans alike can spend endless hours speculating about which players will do what, which teams will play well or not, and a myriad of other topics that have little to with what will actually unfold on the field of play. It is entertaining while there is no football to watch, but once the games begin, opinions of what will unfold get replaced by that which has actually unfolded.
There were many conversations surrounding the position of defensive end for the Nittany Lions this off-season. It was postulated that younger talent would be given a chance to play due to the likelihood that Torrence Brown would not be able to make it back from the injury that he sustained last season. That has become fact, as Brown announced a couple of weeks ago that he would in fact retire. All along, there was no talk of the other projected starter at end, Ryan Buchholz, having to retire from football due to health concerns as well. That news came as a surprise for those outside of the football program.
In January there were some people who were convinced that incoming true-freshman Micah Parsons would be the starting middle linebacker for Penn State when it opened up versus Appalachian State. Now that Parsons has slid outside, the question still remains: Who will start in the middle on Saturday? The first depth chart of the season should be released in a day or so, giving the fans a heads-up ahead of the game this weekend.
The Journey Into The Unknown
Looking back at some of the seasons in the recent past for Penn State football, what unfolded was much different than what had been anticipated. Four seasons ago the team was ineligible for the post-season when the first two games of the year were played. A few weeks into that year, it was decided that the team would be allowed to play in a bowl game; the challenge became keeping itself bowl-eligible by achieving a .500 record or better. The 2014 team finished the regular-season with a 2-6 stretch, holding on to a 6-6 final regular-season record, and went to the Pinstripe Bowl, where it defeated Boston College 31-30 in overtime.
2015 began with a shocking loss to Temple. The Lions rebounded with a 6-1 stretch that made it possible for another bowl appearance, this time an entertaining loss at the hands of Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. It was the first time Trace McSorley played meaningful snaps for Penn State, taking over for Christian Hackenberg, who would announce his plans to leave for the NFL after the game.
The following season there was little expectation that James Franklin would lead his team to a Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl appearance. A deflating 49-10 loss, just two weeks after a loss to Pittsburgh, put the prospects of having a memorable season on the back-burner. Fans looked ahead at the remaining schedule and thought it would be nearly impossible for the team to stay bowl-eligible for a third season in a row. Instead McSorley led the team to nine consecutive wins and then lost by just a field goal, on the final play of the game, in Pasadena.
Last year the team was expected to make a run at the playoffs by some of the most optimistic fans. In retrospect, just two near-misses kept the dream from becoming a reality. The Lions were unable to hang on in Columbus and then lost again at the last second, after a three-hour delay, in East Lansing. A Fiesta Bowl win and 10-2 finish to the season wasn’t quite what some had hoped for, but overall it was a successful season for the program.
So now we stand at the foot of the mountain that the team must climb in 2018. Expectations are high for the team; it seems unreasonable to rule out a national championship at this point, though it will be a great challenge. Looking at the schedule, the team must play Ohio State and Michigan State back to back, with a bye in between. Later in the year Michigan and Wisconsin loom in consecutive weeks with no break in between. While Franklin’s team could run the table, it could also take more losses than it has in recent years.
After nine long months of anticipation and speculation, we are now just a handful of days from watching as the current season unfolds. If the recent past is any indicator, the coming season will contain some pleasant surprises and also some tough moments for Penn State fans to stomach.
The wait is nearly over. They will be playing football in Beaver Stadium later in the week!