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Penn State Football: Never Easy, But Nittany Lions Learn As They Avoid Heartbreak

by on October 27, 2018 9:40 PM

It is often said in basketball that seeing the ball go through the hoop can be the most effective way to find your touch again. A string of near misses that don't come off the hand quite right, and then suddenly one falls, it feels effortless and you wonder why it had been so hard all this time.

And then you hit another, and another. The cold streak warms and you're unstoppable.

For Penn State football Saturday night was a moment like that, at least a moment that can build into something like that. The ball going through the hoop, a close game against a ranked team turning into a win instead of another heartbreak.

In reality there is nothing to say the Nittany Lions will suddenly become unbeatable, truthfully it's more likely than not that Penn State will lose next week in Ann Arbor. It's also almost certain that a game against Wisconsin will be decided in the final possessions. Nothing about what comes next will be easy. Like they also say, winning doesn't solve your issues, it just masks them.

But now this team knows what it feels like to win the kind of game that has haunted the Nittany Lions. It knows what it takes, how to execute a delicate dance between victory and defeat.

Trace McSorley's presence on the field is a comfortable and reliable facade, one that covers up the fact that this particular team is not responsible for its own preseason hype. This group is young, the Nittany Lions' two-deep roster on Saturday peppered with new faces and names, guys who haven't played a lick of football until this year.

So it is also inexperienced. These players weren't on the field for a win over Minnesota in 2016, a comeback against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. Some of them were watching from the sideline or even from home as Penn State fell to Ohio State on the road they were the first on the field as Juwan Johnson hauled in his game-winning catch against Iowa not the first to break the huddle. The freshman have known nothing but two heartbreaking losses, the sophomores twice that. Most all of them have never seen the best Trace McSorley had to offer. 2016 is a season of stories, not shared experiences.

At one point they all could have leaned on Saquon Barkley or Mike Gesicki. Maybe the likes of DaeSean Hamilton, flashing his smile across the field as he grabbed a ball from two defenders. These players, even they struggled to see the ball go through the hoop sometimes, but at least they knew how to shoot it.

Now those names are gone, and the Nittany Lions must lean on a new ones to do the job, ones that will figure out how to do it all on the fly. They will have to create those new stories.

In turn, as Pat Freiermuth hauled in a touchdown he learned. As KJ Hamler raced down the field with the ball he absorbed information. As Jahan Dotson grabbed a pass he gained confidence. All these little moments turning into data points that shape careers both now and in the future. As Micah Parsons made mistakes, he made a note in his head for what to do next time, or maybe the time after that if he made the mistake again. Learning and applying are separate challenges after all.

For the likes of senior safety Nick Scott, his interception inches from the end zone was another moment on his own long list of them. He has seen it all by now, he's one of the few left that has. The same could be said for Trace McSorley, who fought through the first in-game injury of his collegiate career to pilot Penn State's ship past those last minute icebergs, racing 51-yards for a touchdown because he had no choice. Their stories are not over, but the lessons learned on Saturday night by players one just starting their journeys will be invaluable to the program's future success.

So what does Scott pass down to those behind him? What has all that data taught him so many years later?

"I think the experience is great," Scott said of Saturday's win. "I think the biggest thing for young guys to understand is that regardless the number that is next to your name week in and week out, especially in the Big Ten, it's hard to win. Everybody is on scholarship, everybody is well coached, so it's hard to win. You can't make silly mistakes, you have to play smarter and harder than each team every week. It doesn't matter what their record is, you cannot take any opponents lightly in college football."

"Nobody plays a perfect game, no team plays a perfect game. Win, you learn from it, lose, you learn from it."

To be certain Penn State was in fact far from perfect. Poorly timed penalties, short drives, mental errors and one less poorly timed throw from Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley could have just as easily turned this game in a different direction. Those are moments to learn from, mistakes not to forget in the glow of victory.

But there were plays along the way; two sacks by Yetur Gross-Matos, a near strip-sack by Shareef Miller, three long field goals by Jake Pinegar. Little things that swung the balance in Penn State's favor, moments where lessons were learned and confidence turned into results. Every game has mistakes, it's the ability to bounce back and widen the margin of error that makes good teams great. Perhaps even that illusive elite.

"It was a great team win," Miller said with a smile. "It felt great."

And as Miller fell to the ground at the game's end, the exhale might have been heard across town if not for the roar cascading down from the stands, a collective sigh of relief from both players and fans. At least for one night, they had figured it out.

A moment to see the ball go through the hoop, and the hope and confidence that next one falls as well. Be it this season, or in the years to come. No matter what, they have a moment of their own to lean on now, not moments they inherited.

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