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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Are Who They Are As They Head Into Ohio State Week

by on September 22, 2018 4:00 AM

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When Canelo Alvarez fought Floyd Mayweather, the boxing world felt the fight was coming too soon in Alvarez's career. He was talented but inexperienced, he was feisty but he had yet to face anyone of Mayweather's caliber. It was no mistake that Mayweather put his undefeated record up against the rising Mexican star when he did. It was calculated, as so many things in that sport are.

And Mayweather won the fight, going on to eventually retire with an undefeated record and in the eyes of many as one of the greatest boxers to ever live.

Now years later it's Alvarez who sits somewhere in the upper tier of the sport, more experienced and more savvy. He has earned his clout and the big checks that come with it. He's the guy calling the shots, taking names and on most nights sending his opponents to the mat.

In football the analogy is not perfectly translated, but there is something to be said about timing, something to be said about things happening at moments of opportunity.

For the past two seasons Penn State has — more often than not — made the most of those moments, made the most of the talent and experience. There is something to be said for the losses, close and late, but the Nittany Lions put together a stretch as good as any in the program's history and as good as any in the sport during that same time period.

But many of those advantages are gone. Much of that experience has evaporated.

The challenge over the past several months for James Franklin and his staff has been to manufacture something that can only really be built over time: a team that can take punches like the old one and throw them with the same pace and consistency of a veteran. Trace McSorley, Miles Sanders and a host of receivers have provided a stinging jab, but the haymakers are not as frequent and timely as they once were.

It makes next week's meeting with Ohio State feel a bit like that first Alvarez fight, a puncher's chance to be sure but not nearly the even field it was a year ago.

In many ways it must be a helpless feeling for Franklin, who watched his defense — for the third time in four games — struggle to stop a team in the first half it otherwise should have, or in the very least held at least a manageable distance. He knows, and has said as much, a truth he cannot change in just a week: that this defense does not have an obvious starting 11, and it does not have an obvious playmaker that can make the difference in the game's biggest moments.

It is young, it is talented, but it is inexperienced and youthful in ways that cannot be aged any faster than time will allow.

For Trace McSorley, it also must be a helpless thing to watch. His offense is not what it once was, but 45 or more points in four straight games is an undeniable result. He has the weapons, the experience and the savvy to punch with anyone, but those punches come in differently and land with different power. No matter how many points this team scores against inferior opponents, it still feels like a homage to the YouTube highlights more than a continuation of them.

So, like Franklin, he can only do so much, only help from a distance hoping that time will speed up just enough that the incubation period will shorten.

"I think the main thing is letting those guys know to keep their heads up," McSorley said after the game Friday. "When things happen and guys are still trying figure things out because of some youth, guys tend to shell-up and go into the doghouse and kind of not play like themselves. I think keeping those guys confident and then using the rest of the offense to give them confidence. This is a full team game, offense needs to support the defense, defense needs to support the offense. That's something we harp on and take pride in, that this is a full team and we've always got each others backs."

Of course, Penn State still has that puncher's chance, much like Alvarez did, and in many ways the odds are more favorable than they were for him that night. But Penn State can't change what it is in just a few days, a young team prone to dumb mistakes, sloppy first half defense and a youthful charm that will pay off down the road but might be its undoing in 2018.

So McSorley will lean on what has always been the adage, that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. If the Nittany Lions can hold serve with Ohio State for the first half, the obligatory adjustments by a young defense might make things interesting yet again late in the night as the two teams take the field. He might be able to drag this team to a victory it might not fully deserve just yet.

Then again, as McSorley knows all too well, few Big Ten teams give you the luxury of waiting until the second half to get things going, so maybe he can only do so much on his own.

"You don't have two quarters (off) in any Big Ten game," McSorley said. "It doesn't matter who you're playing. We were able to keep pace tonight but that's something our defense is going to want get back in... Coach Franklin harps on fast starts and that's an offense and defense thing. It's something we'll get back in and we'll work on those things, but it's just keeping those guys confident and letting them know as an offense you trust in them that they're going to do their job."

What happens in a week's time is anyone's guess because, unlike boxing, the game is more complex, more unpredictable and often unexpected.

But if the Nittany Lions lose, they can still grow into the boxer Mayweather didn't want to face, a power hitter than can take punches, lean on their experience and know how to navigate 12 rounds all the way to victory.

And when that day comes, the early stages of 2018 might read more like the start of a process for the Nittany Lions and less like a struggle to become the fighters they once were.

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