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Penn State Football is 6-5, But Could Easily Be 7-4…Or 3-8

by on November 24, 2013 9:45 PM

As we near the end of Penn State’s 2013 season, objects – especially victories – appear larger in the rear view mirror.

Looking back to Saturday, we know Penn State could be 7-4 right now.

Or, just as easily, 3-8.

It's that threadbare.

And that’s why, given so many seemingly insurmountable hurdles internally and externally, 6-5 sounds just about right for Penn State and Bill O’Brien. And that record, as it stands, is a victory of a very important sort.

First, the 7-4. Penn State was close on Saturday. Numbingly so.

And closer still, in retrospect, than it looked through the snow and darkness early Saturday evening in Beaver Stadium, after a 23-20 OT loss to Nebraska. A missed extra point, a missed field goal in overtime, a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked punt, 13 point-less drives (11 punts, a missed field goal, an interception).

Righting the wrong of just one of the above may have made Penn State owners of a 7-4 record right now, alongside 24 other teams with the same mark, tied at No. 36 in the major college football standings. That 7-4 mark is the most common one in all of college football – about 1 in 5 teams now have that record.

Saturday, Penn State came close to being commonly good – which would have been uncommonly once-in-the-144-year-history-of-college-football good.

That’s why, though no player said it, the Nittany Lions’ loss on Saturday may have been the most impactful of the nine they’ve experienced over the past 13 months and of the 11 they’ve suffered since last losing to Nebraska in November 2011. They didn't have to say anything. Their coach did so without uttering a word.

EMOTION THAT FIT THE BILL

Watching Bill O’Brien as he quietly entered into the media room after the game on Saturday spoke volumes. After losses and wins, he often has an edge, his win-the-game motor still running, his fire still burning. Not this time. His eyes weren’t red, but for the few seconds they were visible beneath the shadows of a tightly turned brim of his blue ballcap, they showed signs of sadness. He wiped his nose countless times, from the cold of the day and perhaps from the harshness of the loss.

 

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There was the emotion of Senior Day, no doubt, but you have to believe more so it was about opportunity lost. This was a game that Penn State could have won, stealing one against a 7-3 Nebraska team coached by Bo Pelini, now just one victory away from his sixth consecutive nine-win season. (That would match both Alabama and Oregon; Boise State needs two wins to stay in The Club.)

For 6 minutes and 19 seconds, O’Brien sat along the dais in the Beaver Stadium media room, a 15-second walk from a locker room full of players still thawing out their limbs and their pain, the epicenter of Penn State's inner sanctum and emotional core. Initially, he did a double-take at the ring of recruits and their families, looking down from a second-floor opening at his post-game press conference with the season’s biggest media crowd, over 140 in all.

O’Brien sat near motionless in his blue coach’s jacket, his arms tightly crossing his torso. Normally animated, with his hands and arms and eyebrows in constant motion up and down, on Saturday O’Brien was quiet, nearly unmoving. Proof positive he was moved.

“I thought both sides of the ball played with great effort,” said O’Brien, raising his left hand and spreading his fingers to emphasize his point. “That’s never a problem at Penn State. It’s just too bad we didn’t, ah … we didn’t win.”

Of its five losses, this was the closest that Penn State came to winning – especially winning a game that carried panache. Yes, Central Florida won by just three points, but Penn State never led that one against O'Brien's old mentor and actually trailed by as many as 18 points in the second half.

Then there was Indiana. Penn State trailed just 21-17 after three quarters in Bloomington, before being outscored 23-7 over the final quarter -- for a depressing 44-24 finish in a desultory, late-morning, rainy, half-empty stadium setting for college football, whether you are host or visitor. Minnesota led 24-10 at halftime in Minneapolis, scoring every time it had the ball in the first half, then took its foot off the gas pedal to win by the same score. And Ohio State won 63-14, ’nuff said.

3-8: WAS A POSSIBLE FATE

Just as easily, the season-opening 23-17 win against Syracuse in the humidity of MetLife with a rookie QB could have been a loss. So, too, could have been the 24-17 OT win against Illinois. As well as the 4OT 43-40 win against Michigan. That one, especially. Michigan entered that game 5-0 and ranked 16th, with wins over Notre Dame and Minnesota. If there was a surprise of the year for the Penn State coaching staff, it might have been that victory.

If not for those 16 points in three games against those three teams, Penn State would be 3-8, and very likely 3-9 at season’s end. Let’s allow that one to sink in a bit. Wow.

In retrospect, those three wins were much more of a toss-up than anyone outside the program would admit. Michigan is now 7-4, Syracuse is now 5-6 and Illinois is now 4-7. By beating Penn State, they would’ve been 8-3, 6-5 and 5-6. Egads! If the Illini hadn’t been playing with one Beckman tied behind their back, their record right now might be the same as Penn State’s – 5-6. 

Rather than an indictment of Penn State and O’Brien and the Nittany Lions, those victories bespeak the volumes that O’Brien did not on Saturday.

A win over Nebraska would’ve been – in retrospect, should’ve been -- a theft of big proportions. To get to within the 720-inch cusp (the distance of a PAT) of a 7-4 record and see it ricochet away? Well, that’s enough to leave a coach speechless. Of all the nine one-game seasons that Penn State has lost over the past two years, it’s likely that one hurt the most.

6-5: THAT COVETED NO. 63 RANKING

So, now, Penn State is 6-5. Forget bowl eligible. Penn State is program eligible. And, on average, that is a lot better than most people would have thought two years ago. On the field Penn State is now about as middle-of-the-pack as you can get. In 2013, 11 of the 128 college teams playing big-time FBS football are 6-5 and nearly perfectly average. Or, imperfectly.

Those 11 have 6-5 records and are currently tied for the 63rd-best record in the 2013 season. Penn State is a member of that club. Ten of those teams are likely to play in a bowl game, even if they all lose their final regular season game. Not Penn State, since the NCAA has decried that the Nittany Lions cannot play in a postseason game for the second straight season.

Under normal circumstances – remember those? – even if Penn State loses next Saturday in Madison, they would be permitted to go bowling. All teams need to go is a .500 regular-season mark. As it is, the Big Ten is short one of those, meaning that it can only send seven of its teams to bowl games – even though it has contracted slots for eight.

Odds are, Penn State will finish 6-6. Odds are they will lose to 14th-ranked Wisconsin. Those odds? Penn State is getting 23 points. Wisconsin is 9-2, but could very well be undefeated.

A bizarre ending to their 32-30 loss at Arizona State cost the Badgers a chance at a game-winning 32-yard field goal. (Watch it here.) Two weeks later, Wisconsin rallied to score 10 consecutive points in the fourth quarter, but fell short 31-24. As it was, a 40-yard Braxton Miller TD pass on fourth-and-7 on the last play of the first half did in the Badgers. (Watch that here.)

AVERAGE TECH-NOLOGY

Only one major college football team among the 125-plus that took the field in 2012 finished at exactly .500. One.

That was, with some irony, Georgia Tech, which finished 7-7 and ranked No. 70 overall last season. O’Brien (1995-2002) and fellow Penn State coaches Mac McWhorter (1980-86) and Stan Hixon (1995-99) all coached at Tech. Penn State’s defensive coordinator last season, Ted Roof, left in the offseason for Georgia Tech.

Georgia Tech is 7-4 in 2013, with only Georgia and a bowl game remaining, and 14-11 over the past two seasons; a two-year record of 14-13 or 15-12 is likely. Penn State, meanwhile, is 14-10 during the same time frame.

It’s a past, present and future kind of thing, although there’s really no comparison. Penn State’s two-year record may be similar to the school of O'Brien's past, a Georgia Tech team that’s as average as you can get in college football's present.

But O’Brien’s presence at Penn State – and that of his 17 departing seniors? Well, it's been anything but average. Collectively, despite Saturday's OT loss to Nebraska, they have already ensured the Nittany Lions’ future.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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