Four weeks ago, the Penn State Nittany Lions were on the top of the world. Well, almost the top. Number 2 to be exact. They had just defeated arch-enemy Michigan at home, in primetime, under the lights in their trademark White Out.
And then the cracks started to appear. A road trip to Columbus was low lighted by a fourth quarter comeback by the Bucks where Penn State snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Some people blamed it on sphincter ball. Others criticized Joe Moorhead, who perhaps shoulder some of the blame, but quite frankly probably did not garner enough of the fame when Penn State was winning.
And while the Lions dropped to 7th in the polls, a shot at the national championship was still tantalizingly within reach.
But first, they had to get past a pesky Spartan team, themselves coming off a heart-breaking loss to Northwestern, and an earlier loss to Notre Dame, a team which seemed destined for the final four.
The weather was less than ideal. The game was postponed. And while the Lions sat in a locker room somewhere in East Lansing, the Buckeyes were getting pummeled by Iowa in Kinnick Stadium.
The Lions not only had an outside shot at the national championship picture, but a Buckeye loss might put them right back in the Big Ten Title race.
Apparently, we were tired of racing.
In the late hours of a long, weather delayed game–I was tired waiting–Penn State failed to convert a fourth and short–I liked the call, but not the execution. With the game still tied, the Spartans marched toward field goal range. And just when it looked like we stopped them short and could head to over-time, we made the critical mistake. Roughed the passer. Fifteen yards pushed them inside the makeable range for their kicker who split the uprights as time expired.
Game. Set. Match.
This doesn’t mean Penn State can’t end with a 10-2 season and a decent bowl. Given the events of the past five years, it is still amazing that we were even within sniffing distance of a Big Ten Title last year, or a chance at a National Crown this year.
So why were so many Penn State fans standing on the ledge? Why are we so upset this season has taken such a turn for the worse? How can we not be content to be ranked at all, and heading for a bowl game, when but a few years ago we weren’t even allowed to have such aspirations?
I think there are several reasons.
One, we really lost those games. Teams win or lose. Sometimes you get beaten. Sometimes you play well and get upset. Sometimes you make more mistakes than the other guy. While the Buckeyes were picked by the odds makers to win (they didn’t cover by the way) Penn State was in command of that game until the final six minutes, and led up until the final 1:42. I don’t want to take anything away from the other team’s effort, but Penn State really controlled that game for 3 and a half quarters. It’s a tough way to lose a game. Had we fallen behind by 14 in the first quarter and never caught up, so be it. But to blow a lead like that was just devastating. It’s not that we lost as much as how we lost.
With Michigan State, who knows what went wrong. They too are a good team. We did not play our best. The weather was less than favorable, but both teams endured the same conditions. We did not dominate the game. And we did not make the plays when we needed to make them. We made the mistake (roughing the passer.) We might not have prevailed in OT. Who knows?
Then, on top of losing games we really had legitimate chances to win, we essentially took ourselves out of an undefeated season and a chance to play in the playoff and the Big Ten title is off the table unless Ohio State loses TWICE to Michigan this weekend.
We were in the driver’s seat and we lost control. Crashed and burned.
Maybe Penn State fans are spoiled. We have had a lot of success when it comes to undefeated seasons.
According to Wikipedia, Penn State is 8th on the list of schools with undefeated seasons. That list includes games from the 1800’s, so teams like Yale and Princeton lead the list, followed by Michigan, Notre Dame and USC. Harvard is on there, and Oklahoma edged us out.
If you further distill this data to the Joe Paterno era and beyond (1966-present), there have been 56 undefeated teams over basically 50 years. You won’t see Harvard or Yale on that list, but Boise State and Utah have 2 unblemished records, Toledo has 3, Alabama has 4, but PSU leads the nation with FIVE. Consider also that Penn State was a yard away from possibly a sixth in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, and a couple seconds in Ann Arbor away from an undefeated season in 2005.
Perhaps we expect to go undefeated, when the odds are really against teams running the table. Statistically, about one team a year (there are currently 130 schools in the College Football Bowl Subdivision) goes undefeated. Even if you assume two teams can go undefeated in a season, that is only a 1.5% chance of any given school being unbeaten.
Or maybe, since we have been there before, we do appreciate how precious and rare an undefeated season is, particularly in the era of football that allows forward passes! Pitt has 8 undefeated seasons overall, but only 1 in the last 50 years. Of Michigan’s 23 undefeated records, only ONE occurred in the last 50 years (1997.) For the Irish, 22 overall undefeated seasons with only two in the modern era (1973-Ara Parseghian, and 1988-Lou Holtz!) Joe Paterno alone has more undefeated seasons (5) than all but 37 schools in their entire history, which includes teams no longer in the Bowl Subdivision.
Regardless of the setbacks and disappointment, this program has come a long way, baby. With only Maryland on the horizon, a 10-2 season is reasonably expected but not guaranteed. With the 56-44 victory over the Cornhuskers, Penn State is now undefeated at home for two straight years . . . the last loss in Beaver Stadium was on November 21, 2015 (lost 28-16 to #12 Michigan.) PSU is 20-1 at Home over the last 21 games!
Penn State is currently 10th in the College Football Playoff Rankings. (12th in the AP.) Unfortunately, I don’t see any possible way for us to move up 6 spots. Of course, If Michigan beats Ohio State, who then beats Wisconsin badly to drop them below us–Auburn could lose to Bama. Clemson and Miami will face-off in the ACC Championship. I believe Oklahoma has a championship game as well . . . . Stranger things have happened.
GO STATE! BEAT TERPS!