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So Close, Yet So Far

Saturday was a stark reminder of how far Penn State really is from the top. And Michigan isn’t even the top.

Oct 15, 2022; Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA; Michigan Wolverines running back Donovan Edwards (7) is lifted up by offensive lineman Zak Zinter (65) after he rushes for a touchdown in the second half against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Michigan Stadium. Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with the obvious: The only team in the Big Ten that has the ability to stay with the Georgias and Alabamas of the world is Ohio State. Coming from a fan of a team who just got its collective behind handed to them by the Michigan Wolverines, it may sound as sour grapes.

But the reality is pretty simple. This team has the same makeup, sans quarterback, as the one that was run off the field against Georgia a year ago. If this team does get their rematch against the Bulldogs, the result will likely be the same. Ohio State has the fire power, the talent, and the coaching to not only stay with, but potentially beat Georgia in this theoretical playoff (or Tennessee, who knows), but Michigan’s style of play can easily be shut down by a team who can stop the run and trust their secondary to make the quarterback beat them.

And therein lies the problem. Through five games, Penn State was supposed to be that team. The defensive line is still one of the better lines in the country. The offensive line was supposed to be improved. Yet, from start to finish, Penn State looked like they didn’t belong on the same field as Michigan, a team who is most likely going to get the doors blown off them in a month, when Ohio State the Death Star exacts its revenge.

Penn State was lucky to be in the position they were, as the Wolverines’ first two drives ended in field goals and not touchdowns, so, down 13-0, they were able to come back and take the slightest of leads for the shortest of times. They even did it again at the start of the second half, when a 17-16 lead quickly turned into a 31-17 deficit, and before you knew it, the Lions were losing by 24, with no hope of a comeback.

Penn State’s recruited pretty well. They’ve hired respected coaches up and down the ranks. They’ve competed with the best teams in the Big Ten before, yet they still find themselves in this situation, the one where all they can do is merely compete. Because, for as close as the program feels at times, the reality is that they’re incredibly far still.

My hope is simple. Take the next step. Finish out the year, take your beating at the hands of Ohio State, avoid the letdown against Minnesota, beat the teams you should beat in Rutgers, Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan State, and at least claim that you’re closing the gap. Because, at this point, the last thing anyone wants to see is uninspired play that leads to a loss that shouldn’t have happened, because the coach has an inability to inspire their team to play well.

Getting run out of the building against Michigan is understandable. After all, the aforementioned death star was on the receiving end of this beatdown last season. It’s what you do with the disappointment of this loss that counts. You can salvage the season if you avoid losing to a team you have no business losing to. But for everyone’s sake, don’t repeat the same mistakes we’ve seen for nine years now. Don’t lose to anyone other than Ohio State, and prove to the rest of us that there’s an end goal in sight, and that the gap is not as wide as it looked like today, because this feeling of being right there only to get the stark reminder that you’re really not, is, well, not great.

Lastly, I’ll leave it with this: Drew Allar was not going to save Penn State in this game. In fact, he had a shot when the game was still mathematically in grasp and couldn’t to more than Sean Clifford did. But, now that the grand goals are out the window, now that a Big Ten title, a playoff appearance, and anything beyond hoping for a New Year’s Six bid is off the table, let the young kid take over. He’s learned all he probably will from Clifford. Let him go against Ohio State and test the waters. Let him get enough playing time that by the time next season rolls on, you have an experienced quarterback at the reins. If that means splitting time with Clifford, so be it. If it means starting outright, go on ahead!

All the pieces of a good team are there. Reinforcements in the trenches are on the way. Now, it’s time for the coaches to put it all together. Because, being so close, while still so far away, is the kind of purgatory no one should have to live in.