Penn State Football: As Injury List Grows, Reminder Already To Enjoy The Victories
Bill O'Brien tried to tell you this was going to be hard.
A 27-24 overtime victory against Illinois gave him the perfect platform to indirectly remind everyone of this. His remarks made a few game stories, but for the most part his comments came and went. Penn State had won and that was all that mattered.
"We cherish every win; we cherish every single win here at Penn State," O'Brien said at the time in a tone that could only be described as restrained frustration. "We have a happy locker room. Give credit to Illinois, they are a much improved football team. Our kids battled and we cherish every win. There is no ugly win."
"I don't feel fortunate to win. I think it's a hell of a win... don't feel fortunate; fortunate is when you win the lottery, like `I won $50 million dollars, I'm fortunate to win the lottery'. We went out there and did what we had to do to win the football game, give the kids here at Penn State a lot of credit."
Bill O'Brien understood.
He understood that Penn State was facing and continues to face a crippling situation. It's an uphill battle to make it to Saturday with everyone still healthy. Scholarships don't seem like a big deal until they're gone and suddenly you're starting players who wouldn't have played under normal circumstances.
So as Penn State walked off the field against Illinois, O'Brien didn't feel fortunate, he felt proud of a team that had the odds stacked against it and still managed to win. He felt glad the team had lived to see another week. Despite all of this, people still were asking questions, poking holes in a team that was a few injuries from the structural integrity of swiss cheese.
Certainly, even in these circumstances there is still room for a critical eye. Mistakes will be made that have nothing to do with a team's experience or depth and the media and fans will point them out. But at some point that invisible hurdle has to play a roll in how fans and the media analyze a season, a game, and the very state of the program.
The fact of the matter is, Penn State football is an underdog nearly every week. That's perhaps a difficult pill to swallow, but the truth nevertheless.
When you think of great underdogs you think of crowds coming out to see their team pull off an upset. Every first down is a big deal, every field goal is a step closer to winning, every third down stop is a momentum swing. College basketball thrives largely on the belief that the game is better when the underdog wins. In a weird way, there is a certain enjoyment that comes with the underdog role. Nothing to lose, everything to gain.
The past two years though you have rarely felt that the underdog role has been embraced by fans on message boards and in the stands. The support is as passionate as it has always been and the expectations have been lowered, but there is an underlying feeling that Penn State should be better than it has been simply because it's Penn State. There's kind of a feeling that blaming the sanctions is getting old and getting old fast.
Someday, maybe even soon, fans can expect to win the way the program always has. Head coach James Franklin has made a career out of getting the most from his teams and his success recruiting is far and away the most effective adrenaline shot to program morale.
Even so, Franklin knows the challenges ahead of him. He's telling freshman to be ready to play, selling fans and recruits on the future of the program -- while quietly remarking on depth issues across the board on the current team. For example, Franklin moved two defensive linemen to the offensive line leaving him no less concerned about having a two-deep roster at that position. Sometimes you just don't have enough no matter what you do.
With the news out now that linebacker Ben Kline has torn his achillies, joining offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach on the list of Nittany Lions with major injuries, depth issues have only grown. The challenges have only gotten harder to overcome and the men and resources to overcome them are dwindling fast. That's simply the way it is.
Contrary to what it may seem, this isn't about accepting losing or enjoying what .500 seasons feel like. It's about embracing a role. Penn State fans might enjoy the process of coming back to national relevancy if they learned to enjoy the little things along the way. Having to lower your expectations might be a difficult pill to swallow, but as all the good underdogs know, it makes the successes that much sweeter. The Nittany Lions have made a living out of proving people wrong, and it could happen again -- but it won't be easy.
Nobody knows how Penn State's 2014 season will unfold. But one thing is certain; there are no ugly wins.