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Penn State Football: A Tale Of Two Halves, But A Story Told Before

by on September 08, 2019 1:10 AM

Pat Freiermuth was sitting on the bench, Penn State struggling to find itself against Buffalo, when it occurred to him: Trace McSorley isn't around anymore.

"I've go to be that vocal guy now," Freiermuth, a team captain, said after the game. "I was kind of reflecting on the sideline, last year I was just sitting on the sideline and looking at Trace... So it's definitely different now that I'm in that role."

There is something to be said for articulating that thought.

For one, it describes the existential challenge Penn State faces in 2019, forced to find itself while racing to meet the expectations set by teams that no longer exist. The Nittany Lions are in the most difficult part of program building: the sustain. It's one thing to cycle every two or three years into an elite team, a completely different beast to always be one.

Young? Grow up faster than everyone else.

Inexperienced? Learn as fast as you can.

Have a weakness? Improve quickly or you might lose to a team you haven't lost to in years.

No pressure, this is what you signed up for.

There is a certain reality in college football, one which states that most everyone isn't going to be Clemson. And frankly, even Clemson wasn't always Clemson, and as hard as it is to believe, Alabama wasn't always quite this dominant. Don't forget Florida State, a program that went from elite to head first off the map.

In turn, the biggest mistake you can make right now is expecting the 2019 version of Penn State football to become the 2017 version in one quick step. That doesn't mean you should change your expectations, but some pragmatism never hurt.

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And that's the place Penn State football sits in early September. The players that brought the program to this point are gone; the program has entered a new chapter with new faces. Most of these players have never been put on the spot during a big road game, they've never been down, never had to rally to troops. Most of these players haven't done very much at all.

Bluntly, the 2019 edition of Penn State football entered Saturday's game with one thing on its resume.

Beating Idaho 79-7. That's it.

This means they had never been punched in the mouth or faced adversity. All they knew was a blowout against a team they could have beaten with their eyes closed. So many lessons to learn in so little time because the expectations no longer allow for the slow grind. The expectations call for wins, the expectations call for the reversal of losses to Ohio State and return trips to Indy.

But to the unbiased eye it is better to view Penn State for what it is right now rather than what fans hope it will become. It is a team still finding itself, prone to mistakes and surprises. It is above average because its talent dictates as such, but for now it is undefined. Its edges are blurred, coming in and out of focus.

And that is how games like Saturday night happen. Buffalo entered undaunted by the lights of Beaver Stadium, well coached and confident. Backed by a massive offensive line and a confident defense, the Bulls were sharp and strong in their execution. The Nittany Lions bumbled around early, and struggled to find a rhythm on offense between Buffalo's long, plodding drives.

The result: a 10-7 deficit heading into the first half.

The response: a 38-3 offensive explosion in the second.

As for Freiermuth? A seven-catch, 100-yard half and two touchdowns, on-field leadership at its finest.

"I kinda told them at halftime, get me the ball I want to make plays," he said. And they listened to me and got me the ball and I'm confident in whoever they get the ball to."

"At halftime we were able to make adjustments with a young team," coach James Franklin said after the game. "We've got to be able to do that throughout the game, and make adjustments between series. I think we were able to do that at halftime and talk to them in detail, but with a bunch of young and inexperienced player we've got to be able to make those adjustments."

It's a story that harkens to Penn State's 2016 season, a young team that was known for its second-half surge and the ability to turn games on their head. The Nittany Lions are now 9-4 over the last 13 games that were tied or in which Penn State was trailing at the half, a testament to a few things, not to mention an ability to make changes over the course of a game. Whenever they might come.

Bad coaching isn't going down, it's never turning the ship around.

Thoughts of 2016 remind one of how much it changed over the course of the year. It went from a season racing toward eight wins to a Big Ten title. It did not start on fire, but it ended one of the hottest teams in the nation and the best team in the Big Ten.

That transition set the foundation for the expectations this 2019 team now faces, and in turn both teams began their journey in a similar fashion.

Penn State has played and recruited itself into the position where it can expect big things, but that does not mean those goals will be achieved overnight, nor that it will go without bumps and ugly moments.

"We haven't faced adversity like that," Sean Clifford said. "I think it was really good for us, to get pushed like that. I'm glad of how we responded and I'm excited to keep moving on."

It's not the first time this story has been told. The first ended with a trophy.

The question now is how this story will, and only time will tell.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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