Two things must be in place for any championship team - they must be very good, and very lucky. Ask fans of any program, and they can likely list several ill-times injuries to key players that completely derailed a season- especially in college football, where even if that means just a single, nail-biting loss to cost the team a shot at a national championship.
We recently discussed which Penn State injury we would go back and magically heal to keep that player healthy, and how that would have impacted that particular season. To the roundtable!
Chris L.: Well this is an interesting idea. There have been a bunch of untimely injuries across Penn State sports, but I think I’ll stick with football.
If I could take back one injury it would be Ryan Bates against Ohio State in 2017. Penn State raced out to a big lead in that game, and then was doing an admirable job holding on, when Bates got rolled up on in the third quarter. After his departure, the offensive line had to shuffle, and the offensive performance just wasn’t the same. After the Lions went ahead 35-20 with 7:25 left in the third quarter, they managed just a field goal the rest of the way.
Had they hung on to beat Ohio State, they would have gone no worse than 11-1 the rest of the regular season, almost assuredly putting them in the Big Ten title game, and more likely than not the playoffs. In a 2017 season full of what ifs, the possibility of keeping Ryan Bates healthy very well could have gotten Penn State into the playoffs.|
Clay: This was way more difficult than I thought it would be and I don’t have the advantage of age on my side. I was thinking I’d stick in my wheelhouse and go with wrestling, maybe one of the Alton twins, but I couldn’t really justify that choice and it didn’t really change the team outcome.
Therefore I’ll stick to something recent and, like Chris, I’ll pick something from the Ohio State game. But rather than Bates, I’ll go with Ryan Buchholz. Buchholz had just started to hit his stride for the Nittany Lions and the Penn State defensive line was dominating that game early on. When he went down, the rotation got shorter and was less potent at the top. By the end of the game, the defensive line had nothing left and I think if Buchholz stays in that game the outcome is different, which could change the course of the entire season.
Cari: In 2012, Penn State was the prohibitive favorite to win the women’s volleyball national title, despite breaking in a new setter to run the team. But Micha Hancock wasn’t just any setter, and this team wasn’t just any team, and they blew through the competition, looking like another consecutive national title was on the way.
Then came the Ducks of Oregon. After the Ducks got a gift of a no-call when they hit the net on a Penn State match point, it was clear that Hancock wasn’t herself--she had landed funny on her ankle and wasn’t as mobile as normal. Gone were her patented jump serves. Gone was her ability to get anywhere for anything--and despite this, Russ Rose kept in the freshman phenom despite calls for benching her due to her injury for the previous year’s starter at setter, Kristin Carpenter. We’ll never know what might have happened had Carp come in--but it’s almost assured that if Hancock hadn’t hurt her ankle, the Lions would have another title under their belt.
bscaff: There are but two football injuries. The first was to Blair Thomas, which ruined the entire 1988 season - Joe Paterno’s first losing season, ever. The second was to Aaron Harris, which derailed the 1997 season. Both the 1988 and 1997 teams had certain (defensive) flaws which likely precluded MNC results. That speculation notwithstanding, the answers to most-twist-of-fate-injuries in PSU football history are Blair Thomas, and Aaron Harris. All other answers are not only incorrect, but facile and ignorant.
Lando: First, BScaff is correct that Aaron Harris’ injury was devastating and certainly belongs at the top (Watch his performance against Ohio State in ‘97 if you have any doubts. Eight-year old Lando was enthralled.).
A close second for me would be Michael Mauti in 2011. Mauti was an unquestioned leader on that squad, and I feel partially responsible for his ACL tear against Eastern Michigan after I applied the broadcaster jinx during the Temple game. I was calling the game for PSU’s ComRadio, and after a particularly great defensive stop by the linebacker, I exclaimed, “What a play by a potential All-American!” Whoops. If Mauti had been on the field in 2011, perhaps they are more competitive against Wisconsin and Houston...
At least Mike earned All-American honors in 2012.
Marty: Like Clay, I’ll go with Ryan Buccholz against Ohio State in 2017. That injury changed the entire complexion of that game. Shaka Toney was forced to play more than he was ready for and a thinned out defensive line was completely gassed in the 4th quarter leading to JT Barrett having all day to throw and him turning into Tom Brady for 15 minutes.
Had Buccholz not gotten hurt I truly believe the Nittany Lions would have won that game, and, with a win in the Horseshoe in 2017, that team likely goes to the College Football Playoff. Oh, what could have been.
Chris T.: The sideline injury to Joe Paterno in 2006 was pretty gruesome. I learned a lot more about broken shins than I had ever thought there was to know, all of which made me want to puke.
On the field of play, Geary Claxton’s ACL tear in January of 2008 was a setback for not only him but the team and program. The team finished 7-11 in the Big Ten that year, without the services of Claxton for the final three months of the season. Stanley Pringle, Jamelle Cornley and Danny Morrissey were all juniors, Talor Battle and DJ Jackson were freshmen. There was a lot of talent on that team, and even with Battle beginning his career cold from behind the arc, shooting around 10% for most of the early-going until catching fire, finishing at 28% that year, the team could have made a run in the second half of the season. The Claxton injury ended his career and any hope for the team that year. The next year the team won the NIT, and in 2010 it made a rare NCAA appearance.
Jared: It looks like I’m on the same page with several others as far as timing, but I have a different player in mind. I would go back and find a way to prevent John Reid’s knee injury in spring ball of 2017. Prior to that injury, Reid was well on his way to becoming one of the top cornerbacks in the Big Ten. The magnitude of his absence on the 2017 turned out to be tremendous, when you take a look at the two losses that doomed the Nittany Lions’ playoff chances. Not that you need the reminder, but the first loss came when Ohio State had an incredible fourth quarter comeback to edge the Nittany Lions, with JT Barrett connecting on all 13 pass attempts. If Penn State had its best cornerback on the field, it’s reasonable to think he would have done enough to make a play or two to allow them to cling to the lead. It was a game where everything needed to go the Buckeyes way the last few drives, and sadly, that’s just what happened. The second loss was mainly caused by Penn State’s offense failing to find a rhythm, but the defense had several opportunities to seal the game at the end. Unfortunately, the defense just couldn’t get off the field as the Spartans converted third down after third down. I’m convinced Penn State would have done just enough to win with a healthy Reid on the field that soggy afternoon as well.
The reason the 2017 will always sting is that there was really no dominant team. A very young Alabama team edged out a very young Georgia team for the championship. Oklahoma had an all-timer in Baker Mayfield, but was far from a complete team. Clemson was talented as always, but nowhere near as good as the championship squads of ‘16 and ‘18. A healthy John Reid would have likely been the difference in the regular season, launching the Nittany Lions to a 12-0 record and playoff berth. Who knows what could have been had they made it...
Tim: I would have gone to the BJC locker room and done a Miyagi massage trick on Mike Watkins’ knee after he went down just a few minutes into a pivotal late February 2018 game against Michigan.
PSU was sitting at 9-8 in conference play, but had not picked up any scalps against ranked opponents other than Ohio State (twice) so a win over Michigan would have at the very least, set them up in a position on the NCAA bubble where if they could make a deep enough run in the Big Ten Tournament, it would vault them into the Big Dance. I’m not saying that PSU would have beaten Michigan had Watkins not gotten hurt, but having to force a green John Harrar into a starting role was not ideal. Harrar to his credit, did have a breakthrough during the B1G tourney and NIT runs, but it’s hard to not wonder “what if.” Perhaps I’m not writing posts about why Pat Chambers should be fired, since he would have had an NCAA appearance under his belt.