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PSU Football Team Bucking Expectations

by and on December 08, 2013 12:00 PM

At this point, the Penn State football players and coaches must be tired of having to prove people wrong.

They're also getting pretty good at it.

I don't go out of my way to read as many stories about Penn State football nowadays as I used to as I was growing up, but I glanced at a few publications over the Thanksgiving holiday.

I remember thinking that the 24-point advantage the oddsmakers gave to Wisconsin in the run-up to the season's final game must have been a joke. Everyone else thought the guys in Vegas were generous to the Nittany Lions. None of this made sense to me.

Granted, it was going to take an enormous effort by Penn State to upend the Badgers at rambunctious Camp Randall Stadium — which the Nittany Lions did, jumping to an early lead and holding on for a 31-24 victory — but that didn't mean it was impossible.

Numerous writers brought up Wisconsin's 45-7 triumph in 2011, but another game that would seem to provide more relevance and context — Penn State's 24-21 overtime victory last year — went largely unmentioned.

I didn't understand the prevailing thinking that Penn State was going to get steamrolled last Saturday, or that the program was going to suddenly fold because of the sanctions the team has been dealing with for the last two season.

As I scanned stories by writers who said Penn State wouldn't be competitive for a decade or more in the aftermath of the NCAA blitzing Penn State with unprecedented sanctions, this is what I thought to myself: "These people don't get it."

Athletes don't commit to Penn State just for the experience of playing football. Believe it or not, the university boasts world-class professors and offers opportunities that you can't find just anywhere. Among other factors, those are two of the reasons why almost all of the players remained at Penn State.

The number of wins the Nittany Lions have collected over the last two years isn't what counts the most, though. Rather, it's that the games were won by players who could have left to go anywhere else in the country to play but decided to stay in Happy Valley.

The Nittany Lions didn't always play consistently this season and the loss to Indiana was one of the worst in recent memory, but that doesn't mean this season been a wash. It's been completely the opposite, actually, building to what appears to be a very promising future.

Penn State is 15-9 since the start of last season, essentially the same mark as Michigan, Southern Cal and Virginia Tech; these teams played a few more games with Penn State not playing in a bowl either year.

The 15-9 record is also better than countless other programs across the country, including many in the Big Ten. To put it in perspective, Purdue lost more games this season (11) than the Nittany Lions have accumulated since Bill O'Brien arrived. Sure, the Boilermakers aren't a true comparison, but for fans who think the team isn't playing up to expectations, it's good to keep in mind that a down year for Penn State is a season a lot of other fans would embrace.

I wouldn't classify either of the last two years as "down" seasons for Penn State, but I'm sure others do. You can't use a typical barometer for the last two seasons, when opponents have had an enormous advantage and many times still couldn't win. That says a lot about the Penn State players and coaches.

I can't wait for next season, when it's conceivable that Penn State will win as many as nine or 10 games. I'm sure I sound like a homer, but I'm not some myopic fan who's hoping for the best.

Obviously, a lot can change between now and then, but here's an early look at the schedule: Penn State has games against Akron, Rutgers, Massachusetts, Temple, Northwestern, Illinois and Indiana. Those seven teams collectively finished 27-56 this year, winning less than a third of their games; Rutgers has one game left this weekend while everyone else is done.

Additionally, Penn State doesn't play Wisconsin or Nebraska and should be favored against most opponents, with the possible exceptions of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State; this is assuming Blake Bortles declares for the NFL Draft. If not, Penn State and Central Florida will essentially be a pick 'em game, though I'm guessing the oddsmakers will make Penn State a slight favorite.

To get near 10 wins, the team, like any other, will need upgrades. The defensive played improved over the last few weeks, though that'll need to continue, and special teams are obviously an area of concern. And if Allen Robinson declares for the NFL, the team will immediately need new targets to emerge, though with an extra year the team's tight ends should help offset the need for speed on the outside.

Also, don't underestimate what an extra year can do for Christian Hackenberg, who played like anything other than a true freshman at Camp Randall Stadium last weekend. A top-tier quarterback can erase shortcomings that may pop-up elsewhere.

Lastly, Bill O'Brien has landed a recruiting class that ESPN ranks as 25th nationally and third-best in the conference, behind only Michigan (seventh) and Ohio State (ninth). Nothing is guaranteed, but the program shouldn't regress, considering all of the above and that more scholarships will become available.

The NCAA can do whatever it wants, including handing down over-the-top sanctions and penalizing players who had no connection to any wrongdoing. But that doesn't mean Penn State is going to fall off the map, on or off the field.

The admissions office is still swamped with applications from prospective students and Penn State graduates continue to make an impact across the country.

Penn State was a destination college long before the sanctions and it'll continue to be a great place long after the effects fade away.

For the people who continue to stay fixated on every mistake the football team makes instead of zeroing in on why the players stayed, that's something they'll never understand.



This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.


John covers sports for the Gazette.
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