Heartwrenching Defeat Keeps Penn State Football on Edge
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — There are few tangible rewards Penn State can play for these days. The Big Ten announced earlier this week a division trophy is one of them, but it would not come with an invitation to Indianapolis for a shot at the Rose Bowl.
That does not seem to matter much after a 17-16 loss to Virginia to fall to 0-2 for the first time since a 2001 season that was forgettable from a wins-loss perspective but memorable for the roller coaster ride that team took to get where it wound up, a paltry 5-6 behind a freshman quarterback named Zack Mills.
What this team needs now is validation of their work since January, when Bill O’Brien walked into the Lasch Football Building, re-polished an archaic program and made them believe Penn State could be relevant at a time when the NCAA blackballed them.
How close did they come Saturday? Take any one of Sam Ficken’s four missed field goals — maybe even his blocked extra point — and things could be different. But we’re not going to go there. Not when the offense — Ficken included — accumulates just three points after the defense handed it possession inside the Virginia 30-yard line four times via turnover.
“Anytime you have four turnovers, that’s gonna set us up in position to score some points and win a football game,” linebacker Mike Mauti said. “But it just didn’t happen.”
Or, take the defense, which for the second consecutive week could not stop the opponent on third down in the second half, including four times on the Cavaliers game-winning drive. The backbreaker was a huge 44-yard gain on 3rd-and-16 that took the Cavs to the PSU 34.
“We just gotta execute when it’s time to execute,” Mauti said. “We gotta make a play when it’s time to make a play. That’s really what it comes down to.”
“They really emptied the tank today,” O’Brien said of his team.
Hence, the two expectations for Penn State faithful:
1. Accept mediocrity. Not just this year, but the next and the next and so on. Penn State is undermanned because the NCAA gave permission for players to transfer to any school until preseason practice 2013 and immediately be allowed to play, provided they meet standard eligibility requirements. You know the names, including Anthony Fera, the All-Big Ten specialist. Penn State will continue to be undermanned because of scholarship reductions levied by the NCAA on top of another eight months of poaching Penn State’s roster. It is as much a competitive disadvantage as any team has ever faced.
2. Cheer like hell. There was a moment Saturday when Mauti was sprinting downfield on punt coverage and leveled the return man.
“All I knew is that I wasn’t gonna stop,” Mauti said. “Whether he caught it or not, I don’t think I was gonna stop.”
There was another moment when Allen Robinson hauled in a diving 30-yard touchdown grab in the end zone in which he landed on the ball and briefly got the wind knocked out of him.
Whatever this team can latch onto, that was it. That was the ball Penn State could not connect on last week against Ohio and the ball that could’ve swung that loss the other direction.
Of course, it did not last, overshadowed by four missed field goals, the last after a valiant two-minute drive in a steady rain to even get in position for a victory it surely should have had locked up under ordinary circumstances.
But there is nothing ordinary about this season and this program at the moment. For better or for worse. The bad has been discussed ad nauseum, and the narrative of a camaraderie between a coach who took a job many did not want and a team left hung out to dry for a scandal it had nothing to do with will be written again and again and again. O’Brien said the mood was not great in the locker room; it never is after a one-point loss following a missed field goal. But he also told the team “the sun will come up tomorrow.”
“You want it more for him than yourself,” McGloin said of his coach. “It kills you inside. He’s the guy doing everything he can for us. We’re playing as hard as we can on the field, and it kind of just feels like something is stopping us.”
How much longer until there’s a breakthrough?