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Penn State Football: The (Almost) Longest Wait is Over

by on October 23, 2020 7:00 AM

301 days.

On Saturday, that's how long it will be since Penn State last played football — a 53-39 victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.

Feels longer, right?

Well, if that seems like an eternity, consider the wait more than a century ago, the last time the United States was in the throes of a pandemic, as well as a world war.

In 1917, the Pennsylvania State College football team finished its season on November 29 — Thanksgiving Day, a Thursday, in Pittsburgh — losing 28-6 before 20,000 fans, according to the Penn State Football Media Guide.

It wasn't until 338 days later — 48 weeks and change — that the Nittany Lions took the field again, on November 2, 1918. In a contest played at New Beaver Field, located where the Nittany Lion Inn and parking deck now are, Penn State tied Wissahicken Barracks, 6-6. The barracks were a navy training school located in Cape May, N.J.

Not quite the 2020 equivalent of Ohio State. Or Indiana, for that matter.

The rest of Penn State's 1918 schedule included games against Rutgers, a 26-3 loss at New Beaver Field on November 9; at Lehigh, a 7-6 win on November 16; and at Pitt again, another 28-6 loss, on November 28.

That was it.

(It should be noted that back then, the regular season typically began on the last weekend of September or the first weekend of October.)

Still, the gap between the 1917 and 1918 seasons was a long wait, especially for a pair of home games and a 1-2-1 record. That there was even a season was, in retrospect, sort of miraculous, given the raging virus that killed 50 million people and a world war that saw 40 million military and civilian casualties.

Yet, they played. It is testament to the powerful need for and the healing, social community nature of sport, then and now.

“The play’s the thing,” as noted by William Shakespeare — the Bard, not the 1930s Notre Dame All-American running back of the same name.

In Pandemic II, so is the paycheck from the Big Ten.

MONEY AND RESPONSIBILITY

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Speaking of money: The NFL has long been back. But those are paid professionals, as witnessed by the 439-page collective bargaining agreement signed in the spring between the league and the players union, and which dictates every inch — from medical care to severance pay — of their partnership.

By comparison, the average athletic financial grant-in-aid signed by a college athlete, including Penn State's football players, is in the neighborhood of two pages. (This is why, sooner rather than later, there will be some sort of a college athletes' union.)

Their future is in the benevolent hands of an athletic director making over a million dollars and a football coach making six times that, at the rate of more than $18,000 per day.

It is a responsibility of Biblical proportions. Luke 12:48 states, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

The burden on James Franklin's shoulders must feel crushing at times. No wonder on every Zoom call he says he is running around the offices in Lasch Building and on the practice field telling everyone to mask up. We do wonder if he is contributing financially to ameliorating the crushing financial burden that Penn State athletics is feeling due to the pandemic. Franklin and Penn State ICA (which was asked as recently as this week by yours truly) won't say.

Make no mistake, though: The decision to play is a much bolder one made by Sean Clifford and his teammates. It has come with inherent risks, as Journey Brown can attest.

And, as we have seen with Micah Parsons, the psychic rewards of a truncated season may not be worth taking.

The yin and yang of their stories, especially given where they both were 301 days ago — in Dallas, Texas — provide quite a contrast. Both had just starred in spectacular fashion in the Cotton Bowl. Parsons was the defensive player of the game, with 14 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 forced fumbles and a QB hurry that led to a pick-six.

It is a performance that was worth millions. If Parsons goes No. 5 in the 2021 NFL Draft, he is looking at $30 million guaranteed, which is what the fifth pick in the 2020 draft, Tua Tagovailoa, got. Eschewing the 2020 college football season for those kind of dollars made sense.

Then there's Brown. He capped a season-ending flourish of big games by rushing for 202 yards and two touchdowns, on just 16 carries, to be named the Cotton Bowl's offensive player of the game. Some draft analysts had him going in the first round of the 2021 draft as well.

What kind of money is that? Well, LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the 32nd pick in the most recent draft and the final pick of the first round, by the Kansas City Chiefs. He signed a contract worth $10.8 million — and $8.1 million is guaranteed.

Now, Journey Brown has no guarantee.

However, it would not surprising if Penn State had purchased on his behalf an insurance policy in the offseason, as college teams are permitted to do for its top draft-eligible players, according to NCAA rules. We certainly hope that is the case.

THE SEASON AHEAD

Speaking of hope:

Back in March — early March, pre-pandemic March — Franklin said Penn State was on the verge of contending for a national title.

As in, the future is now. It was 2020 vision. Back then, on March 6, Franklin was thinking Big Thoughts.

"We're close," Franklin said 230 days ago, on a podcast with his Nashville buddy Clay Travis. "Obviously, we've been very close.... We’ve been ranked as high as No. 2 in the country. So, we’re close.”

In other words, to borrow a Travis trademark phrase, CJF said PSU was ready to outkick its coverage. In the Big Ten East, in the conference and maybe on the CFP stage.

It was not hard to take a cotton to that line of thinking, especially after what Micah and Journey did to Memphis.

Now, in some ways a lifetime later, the upcoming season is not what Franklin or the Nittany Nation or any of us wanted. It is, however, one we are getting.

Since March 6: Gone are Micah and Journey (at least for now) and Ricky Slade and Kent State and Virginia Tech and San Jose State and a bye week after Michigan and before Iowa and Ohio State, to say nothing of GameDay on Old Main lawn and #110k fans in a frenzied Whiteout. That's a lot to absorb, but also why James gets the big bucks.

So, the vision for 2020 is different, but still the same.

Penn State could still win a Big Ten title, as the road there runs through Beaver Stadium next weekend. But, first, the Nittany Lions must navigate the trip to Bloomington. These days, that is a literal statement. Getting to and from Indiana safely, managing the travel and a hotel and meetings and the stadium, will be multiple challenges in and of themselves.

But a loss to the Hoosiers, a good team, would not be as crushing as it could have been sans pandemic.

In essence, the 2020 campaign is a free play — like when the defense is offsides and the play continues, with the offense taking a deep shot just because it can, without ramifications.

If Penn State wins out — going 8-0 in the very irregular season, then is crowned champion of Champions Week, and then goes 1-0 and then 1-0 in the College Football Playoff — it will be crowned national champion. And deservedly so. It would be Penn State's best football season ever.

There will be no asterisk — the Road to No. 1 in 2020 will have never been tougher for any college football team since that first game in Piscataway in 1869 (Penn State plays there Dec. 5, by the way).

But, if the Nittany Lions fall short — this weekend, next weekend or maybe even both, the sting will be less. That they are playing football is a victory. That they do it safely, with no one taking ill on the journey (beyond Journey), would be a blessing.



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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