Penn State Football’s Cupboard is 58.2% Full: Yeah, But…
One man’s gutless is another man’s fortunate is another man’s reality is a student’s optimism is many a player’s jubilation.
Through what prism is a single Penn State victory seen?
Context. Shades of blue. Perspective.
Penn State’s has been unlike any other football program for quite some time now. From a legend in decline to celebrated heretofore unseen milestones to onerous sanctions to a rise from the ashes. To a reality that is occasionally 63-14 harsh.
No one has seen anything like it. As such, often it’s hard to assimilate and process Nittany Lion football from any direction. There are no comparisons, no benchmarks, no rules on how to both praise and criticize. So there is plenty of both.
Which brings us to 2013. Which brings us to Penn State’s 24-17 overtime win against Illinois on Saturday in Beaver Stadium. The prism of how that victory is viewed says a great deal about not only the game itself, but the one evaluating it as well. It is looked at through the lens:
Of second-year head coach Bill O’Brien. He is operating with a cupboard that is just 58.2% full. In a system where a team could conceivably have 85 players, O’Brien has just 50 on his roster who entered Penn State with a full scholarship. Despite that, in some ways his free pass is expiring. Now, his games are no longer judged on merely – and most importantly -- on a W or an L, but style points matter now as well. To some degree, he is a victim of Penn State football’s own success.
Of Devon Edwards. He is a blogger for Black Shoe Dairies whose work is also carried prominently by Philly.com (and the guy who incorrectly reported the news that Joe Paterno had passed away). He has not seen the Nittany Lions play in person or queried O’Brien face-to-face about his team, its situation or his – meaning Edwards' -- great expectations. That hasn’t halted his grating expectorations.
Edwards, in the moments after PSU’s win on Saturday, was one of the first writers to hit the Internet. Among his couple thousand words were a few bouquets, but the essence of his vitriol was this, and I quote:
“Here’s the real answer, though: They’re all to blame, for the most gutless, uninspired, stupid, undisciplined and inexcusable performance by a Penn State team in recent memory. And we win.”
I didn’t want to do what Edwards did -- criticize and hide. I made sure we connected by phone on Sunday. To his credit, he talked. To his credit, he posted another story, with some mea culpas on Sunday. But the words were out there, the result he said of having written most of the story before the game was over, the need to get something on the Web ASAP and even the “stress of being a law student.”
Of the media that cover Penn State football. They saw 11 penalties and a slogged-down offense and a defense that bent mightily but rarely broke, inch past an Illinois team hampered by the worst of all sanctions – its head coach.
Media on the Penn State beat – of which there are more than 40 who do so a regular basis, the largest such contingent in the Big Ten – are at a crossroads. At what point do they reduce the slack and call ‘em as they see ‘em? When is it just about the game on the field and not O’Brien’s unique machinations that have been necessary to not only keep Penn State alive – but also thrive.
For years, the question was, "What to do about Joe?" After the 2000-2004 seasons when he righted the ship, he was nearly invincible in print even though he was brittle off the field. He was given a wide-reaching hall pass and, in many ways, he had earned it. Even Graham Spanier and Tim Curley said so – in deed if not in word. But covering Penn State has been trying and historic and soul-searching. Just when, oh when, was/is it going to be a normal football year, without the “Yeah, but…”?
The 2012 season made things easy -- and the prestidigitation of O’Brien made it seem as if winning was the same. It wasn’t. And it isn’t.
Of a Penn State football savant. He’d tell Edwards that the 10-7 win Penn State had over Illinois two years ago, on Oct. 29, 2011, in Beaver Stadium was even less artistic than the one 734 days later (wow, it’s been that long!). And that Penn State was even more fortunate then.
With several inches of snow falling, Illinois drove down the field to attempt a 42-yard field goal by Derek Dimke with five seconds remaining. Dimke, who hadn’t missed a field goal all season, bounced his kick off the right upright. And that gave Paterno his record victory No. 409, in the last game he would ever coach.
There’s no doubt that 2011 Penn State squad was better, with NFLers Devon Still and Jordan Hill at defensive tackle, with linebacker Gerald Hodges (with 19 tackles that day) and running back Silas Redd, with 36 carries for 137 yards, pushing him over 1,000 for the season with three games to go. It was a great victory in many ways. But it was also ugly.
And historically, while the 2013 Nittany Lions won’t match the 9 victories of that 2011 squad, they are likely to achieve 7. And while Edwards said he didn’t know this, in the dozen years before O’Brien arrived, that wasn't that easy of a number to get, with victory totals of 3, 4, 5, 5 and 7 since 2000.
Of the Penn State students. A senior, a woman who is a student leader, told me on Sunday that, “We all thought the third quarter was boring. But we get it. We know that with the sanctions it’s going to be tough for awhile. But we know we’re building for the future and that we’ll get better.
Of the Penn State players themselves. Their feelings matter most – and they believe, actually know, that a win is a win is a win, that every one is special – just as they are. After all, they were the ones who truly decided to stay, knowing that they could reboot their careers elsewhere, with two more years to get settled in relative peace. So while the 2012 Penn State seniors received all the acclaim for staying, actually they had the easier decision -- to go for one more year. It was the underclassmen and the recruits who had the toughest call to make – to stick with Penn State.
That’s why, for them, every win is not just a victory. It is a validation. That they made the right decision, that O’Brien’s Way works, that loyalty and dedication have their just rewards. That Penn State is worth it.
This post-game video from Saturday, shot by Tony Mancuso of GoPSUSports.com, shows that for the guys on the field, a mid-day overtime win over a team that last won a conference game in 2011 feels just as good as a night-time overtime win over an undefeated Big Ten power. Here’s what the players had to say:
Ryan Keiser, playing with a broken hand, is a walk-on, now on scholarship who made the game-saving interception in OT: “It was awesome.”
Bill Belton, who ran for a career-high 201 yards but is a former receiver who would’ve likely been an understudy to Redd – who, amazingly, could’ve been in uniform for PSU on Saturday had he not transferred to USC: “It was amazing.”
Kyle Carter, who caught the game winner after he experienced a broken hand last November and a near-broken arm in August: “It was a big win. We definitely needed this.”
John Urschel, who’s done the math and knows that a stinky 24-17 win over Illinois counts the same as a 4 OT-thriller against Michigan: “It’s great for the team to get this. It was a team win.
“Just to come together, to work to win the football game, is something to take pride in.”