Spectator sports have a funny way of making me, and probably a lot of others, think about time.
A Penn State game from 1996? I remember every detail of the day. A conversation I had last week? I remember bits and pieces.
Selective memory, I’m sure. But this week, in reading (and writing) about Saturday’s game against Northwestern, I came to realize that it’s been five years since the two teams met.
Five years? Part of me was shocked it had been that long, but then I remembered a lot about attending that 2017 game in Evanston: where I parked, what hotel I stayed at, where I ate on the drive back home.
But what I mostly remember about that day was watching Penn State in warmups and having a glowing feeling about the program moving forward from that day.
Penn State was better at every spot, deeper at every position, and, frankly, just so obviously more athletic all over the field than the Wildcats. It wasn’t a particularly memorable game. Tommy Stevens scored a touchdown. Saquon Barkley broke one explosive play. But, overall, Penn State just exerted its will all day long and came away with a not-even-that-close 31-7 win.
Anything seemed possible that day. A Barkley Heisman. A second straight Big Ten title. A first trip to the college football playoffs.
Yet five years later, almost unbelievably, Penn State hasn’t been back to Indianapolis while Northwestern has twice worked its way to the Big Ten Championship game. Of course, this isn’t to say that Penn State hasn’t been the more successful program in the years since - there have been a lot of weeks ranked in the top ten and those trips to NY6 bowl games.
During his Tuesday press conference, James Franklin spent a fair amount of time speaking about building depth and keeping people fresh with rotations. Earlier, before the season, Franklin over and over remarked how there was a return to normalcy for his program and much of that was tied to the depth that they had accrued and been able to use in practice.
Five years ago, it seemed Penn State had that depth - though notably not on the offensive line.
Meanwhile, over the years, Northwestern, while not a rival by any stretch of the imagination, has proved an interesting barometer for Penn State.
In 1995, they showed that in more modern college football, it was possible for nearly anyone to have a championship caliber season every so often.
In 1996, Penn State used a blowout win over Northwestern to reassert itself as one of the best programs in the country. But, in 1997, Penn State held on in Evanston and we all got a sneaking suspicion that the Lions weren’t that good and might be exposed a week later by Michigan.
Nothing signified the dark years quite like scoring a combined 14 points in 2003 and 2004 in two losses against the Wildcats, while we all know that Michael Robinson’s last second rally in 2005 was the warning shot to Penn State winning the Big Ten.
In 2012, it was a gritty 39-28 win against a ranked Northwestern team that stands out as one of the major highlights of Bill O’Brien’s famed group of fighters.
The 2014 loss certainly acted as a reminder that we weren’t quite where we wanted to be despite a spotless record in Franklin’s first year.
Now, headed into Saturday, the first game in what will be a really telling October, I am interested in seeing how this depth and talent performs. What will we remember in five years about this Northwestern game?