Penn State Football: The New Normal
Call it The New Normal.
Not that it’s the same as it ever was. Or will be.
That's because Penn State football will be this way for awhile. Maybe even moreso. Get used to it. Counting the next 11 games on the 2013 schedule, it will likely be at least seven more seasons – 2019! – until Penn State is back at full strength roster-wise.
As it stands now -- barring any recanting by the NCAA -- up to and including the 2017 season, the Nittany Lions will be limited to 65 scholarships. In 2018 a full complement of 85 scholarships will allowable, but unlikely. For that to happen, the maximum 28 scholarships would have to be awarded in February 2018 and a dozen of the 2013 recruits would have to redshirt.
So this sanction thing isn’t going to go away. Soon. Or even not-so-soon.
It will get worse before it gets better. Under second-year head coach Bill O’Brien, the team is hovering around the 65-70 number now for scholarship players. And among that group are several fifth-year players, like Glenn Carson, John Urschel, Malcolm Willis and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong – all of whom have their undergrad degrees, BTW. That experience will soon be a thing of the past.
Left – even right now -- are numbers like these:
65 scholarship players.
40 first-year players.
16 freshmen making a season-opening road trip.
1 true freshman starting at quarterback, 2 corners who had a combined dozen plays at the position starting the season-opener.
1 5-foot-10, 206-pound safety playing linebacker and willing, he said half jest the week before last, “to play offensive tackle, if I need to.” (He almost did.)
GET USED TO IT
This is The New Normal at Penn State. And it will be here for a very long while. It's not normal.
To O’Brien, that literally means playing one game at a time. Actually, one practice rep at a time, one play at a time, one substitution at a time, one more roadblock at a time. And the roadblocks are different each day.
It could be more scandal news. Or another lawsuit. Or a lost recruit, either before he signs or when he gets on campus – another precious scholarship lost. Or an injury. Or the threat of an injury, which has turned his team into a light-hitting practice squad ala the NFL. (Under Joe Paterno, O’Brien’s predecessor, “Bloody Tuesday” was the day of the week the squad literally pounded on each other. No more.) Or declining ticket sales, a trend that started way before 2013, but is fully on O’Brien’s lap right now. Or support that is lacking off the field.
Before that, last summer it was players having carte blanche to just walk – which is what the top three offensive players did just before training camp started in 2012. It’s the same story, only it’s not old. It’s new. Sixty-five scholarships, like a FCS school, until 2017, Fifteen scholarships a year for three more seasons. Same with no bowl games.
No rest for the weary.
It certainly is not a mess of O’Brien’s making. And it is not a situation the players at Penn State now – or ever – had a single finger in creating. But, like Harvey Keitel in “Pulp Fiction,” they are left with the dirty job of cleaning up.
On Saturday in MetLife, The New Normal meant a heat index of 110 on the field, a rash of injuries and cramps, a quarterback whose ability to audible out of overloaded opposing lines was minimal and a depth chart that was as shallow as a Kardashian. At some point, this happened in the past at Penn State and certainly at other places in college football, as recently as last Saturday.
But not with the aforementioned numbers. Well, actually, I’m wrong. On Saturday, eight FCS teams beat eight FBS teams. You know, the FCS teams with 65 scholarship players? It was a big deal. The Big Ten’s very own Jim Delany has little regard for those little guys with limited scholies, urging his conference members not to schedule those teams.
“...Interest in those games is less. They’re from another division,” said Delany, the Big Ten commissioner. “They have 20 less scholarships. It’s like a junior college team playing against a high school team or a high school team playing against a JV team.”
Et tu, Jim Delany? Er...uh...Penn State has 65 scholarships.
Given that as a backdrop, when Penn State beat a Syracuse squad that was 8-5 last season, it may not have been as big of a deal as it should have been.
A sage Penn State follower who has seen four times the games I have and is that number squad smarter than I am about Nittany Lion football, made a great observation. He pointed out that if the final statistics were looked at blindly, without knowing the final score, you might have thought Syracuse won. He’s right: four turnovers, 57 yards rushing, 1 of 16 on third down.
"ISN'T THAT THE POINT?"
But, as O’Brien pointed out every chance he could this past week – from his press conference on Tuesday to his radio show on Thursday -- “We won the game. Isn’t that the point?”
Well, yes. But for so long, Penn State fans and the media have been, well, spoiled. When Paterno was fired in 2011, the team was 8-1 and even then the coach was chastised for alternating quarterbacks. Back-to-back 11-2 seasons two years before that focused on why not instead of what is.
Then there’s 2012 and, now, 2013. The paradigm has not only shifted, it has gone off the meter. Think tectonic plates instead. This is how much: Last June, while on the Coaches Caravan trail, before he even coached a game O’Brien said that he’d like to see big intersectional games like Alabama and Southern California and Stanford. His hopes, his dreams were much bigger. (Including 25 carries a game for Silas Redd.)
That was 69 weeks ago, when O’Brien – and everyone else – didn’t see the sanction tsunami coming. Well, it hit land and everyone mostly held, with the head coach (as always, at Penn State) a symbol and a leader.
Penn State was 8-4 in 2012 and O’Brien was named national Coach of the Year. He was probably the first and last major college football coach to win that honor with four losses. Actually, he earned it, with a lot of help from an already-legendary senior class and a very seasoned coaching staff. Overall, perhaps the Nittany Lions and O’Brien – especially – have made it look too easy. Or relatively so.
The trappings are still there. (But also their root word.)
A huge fan base, the tradition, a coach that is highly respected and visible, a ticket-buying student base that is bigger than ever, an incoming freshman class that bought Penn State at $150,000 and up in good measure because of its football team and the spirit and community it engendered. (This is what my freshman seminar class told me this week, when over two-thirds of the young students reported that the previous sentence is as true as it ever was.)
But it isn’t the same. It’s The New Normal. Penn State is at a decided disadvantage – right now. And O’Brien and his staff and, most importantly, the players are using whatever they can to their advantage. Only now, that advantage only gets them close to on par with the rest of their big-time college football competition.
Walk-ons ala Nebraska. Diets that are the envy of Dr. Oz. Weight training that would make Chuck Norris blush. Versatile players in the mold of past Heisman hopeful Gordie Lockbaum and ex-Pat Troy Brown. The hope is that combined they will allow Penn State to not only be competitive, but win more than it loses.
And win ’em one at a time. Against Syracuse O’Brien got out his duct tape, wrapping up injuries and searching the playbook for third down plays that would work with a rookie QB who was talented but had all of five days of real college classes under his belt before his first exam. And talk about proctors. Christian Hackenberg’s first pass/fail test came before 60,016 fans in MetLife and a national TV audience.
Probably not against Eastern Michigan (a 24-point underdog), but O’Brien and his staff and his players will need not only duct tape, but 14 rolls of chicken wire, 77 bobby pins and a boatload of support and understanding to get through the seven-year plague that may or may not include locusts, frogs or boils. But guaranteed, at times it will feel like all three are in your blue-and-white underwear.
A GNAWING FEELING
That was O’Brien’s point last night, when he finished his radio stint at Damon’s with a stirring closing argument. He was funny throughout the evening, but with a real bite, although he had nothing to eat. Clearly, this gnawed at him all week, and he was still perturbed that a win over Syracuse was not hailed as A Win (over Syracuse).
“I want to remind everybody,” O’Brien said at the end of the night. ”I’ve been asked about third-down percentage, do we have hot reads, about running into a nine-man front, about shotgun… Let’s remember that for now we have 65 scholarship kids who are fighting their butts off every day. We have 100 kids on this football team. We’re showing up every single day to practice.
“Again, at the end of the day we are going to be as competitive as we can possibly be. I think we all have to remember that this is a sport about fun, it’s a sport about college, it’s a sport about academics, it’s a sport about going out there and fighting and winning every day.
“It’s not about third-down percentage. Certainly we’re going to work on that. It’s not about hot reads. It’s not about nine-man fronts. It’s about the fact that we have 65 to 100 kids that are working their butts off to get better every single day. I think we all have to remember that – as Penn State fans and Penn State coaches and Penn State players -- because I couldn’t be more proud of these kids. They went down there to MetLife Stadium, with 104 degree temperatures on the field, with an 18-year-old quarterback, with a couple of injuries that happened during the game and they still beat a very, very Syracuse team. There’s something to be said there.”
O’Brien’s humor and eye rolling covered some of that white-hot passion, but what remained was some disbelief and disappointment that his team was being dissed and dissected.
By the media, who he has repeatedly reached out to. And especially by the Penn State fans, who he expects to be as faithful now (and moreso, actually) through Thin as they were through Thick.
It’s The New Normal. And its shelf-life – and radioactive half-life – are going to be very long indeed.