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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Face Tough Questions and Hard-to-Find Answers

by on November 03, 2018 10:10 PM

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Hat and headphones in hand, covered in bruises and Penn State apparel, Trace McSorley shuffled into the postgame media room following Penn State's 42-7 loss to Michigan on Saturday like he had for the past three years.

But as he entered a Penn State spokesperson swooped him up, guiding him back out into the hallway. They needed to talk about something before he spoke to the media.

Not 10 feet away, fellow quarterback Tommy Stevens sat in a chair surrounded by over a dozen reporters, microphones and tape recorders occupying all of the free space they could find. Stevens was -- at least statistically -- Penn State's most efficient weapon, accounting for 87 of the Nittany Lions' 186 yards of offense.

He also might be the *new* starting quarterback.

For McSorley, the moment was a fitting conclusion to his night. He took the field already injured, a brace on his knee, his veins almost certainly flushing pain medication through his body. Hours before the game ever began he was running sprints, testing his leg, trying to will it back to health. He was unable to run with ease like he has for most of his career. His throws seemed off, just five completions and a wide open touchdown overthrown late in the first half. He was not himself.

No matter the facts, Penn State really had no choice.

"It's hard taking Trace McSorley off the field." James Franklin said, a week removed from calling McSorley the best player in college football, a nod to the reality that even injured he is still Penn State's best option at the position right now.

In turn the second half was a hodgepodge of player management as McSorley was taken out of the game due to his limitations, only to head back out minutes later following a Stevens' pick-six. Penn State was scrambling not even for an answer, but something to hang on to in the torrent of Michigan's self-titled revenge tour.

Asked about what has changed since the first half against Ohio State -- the last moments the offense looked truly potent against a quality defense -- Stevens looked at the ground, as if he, too, is unsure of what has happened. His answer was a short apology for not really having the words.

"It's kind of a hard question to answer, I'm sorry..."

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Much like his teammates, and even sometimes his coaches, Stevens doesn't know (or won't say) where to point to first. For all the talent the Nittany Lions have on paper, they seemingly cannot get out of their own way. There are penalties, timeouts as the result of mistakes, drops, miscues and errors. Plays that should go for nine yards go for three. Things never really clicking.

There is little evidence Penn State would have beaten Michigan on a mistake-free night, but the nature of the loss was the magnification of a motif, the truth that this particular Penn State team has been inconsistent against almost everyone, and has paid for it dearly in the games that matter most.

"It's obviously frustrating," Stevens said. "There are little things that we obviously need to correct that we harp on in practice. It's something we've been working on and kind of the repeated message is just that we've got to get better, we have to get better. There are a lot of things that need to be corrected but we're going to watch the film tomorrow like we do every week and once the film is done and the corrections are made we're going to put it behind us."

Soon Penn State will have even more to put behind it. As McSorley eventually made his way back into the room and across to the podium his demeanor was no different than all of the weeks prior. Outwardly he looks unfazed, the wins run across his face much like the losses.

But he seemed tired. A beating and an injury will do that to a person, but he looked the part of a player four games from hanging up his Penn State uniform for good. He is out of answers, out of ways to carry this team, out of legs, out of ways to answer the same questions about the same issues that have plagued this same team for months now.

"Feel like a broken record," he said half to himself, half to the room, half-joking and half-serious. 

McSorley has provided answers for years now, and soon that will be someone else's job. Depending on his knee, it could be next week.

It's a reality true all across the roster as players enter the final stages of their collegiate careers. There is only so much they can do now, only so many answers they can provide a team that's present state is less important than its future. As senior safety Nick Scott leaned back in his chair he was asked how he would cope with the loss as the Nittany Lions flew home at 40,000 feet. 

"Probably sleep," Scott said without much hesitation.

For Penn State it's hard to ignore the symmetry of Saturday night. Just two years ago the Nittany Lions walked into Ann Arbor hobbled, knowing they did not have much of a chance in a game they would eventually lose 49-10.

But that team at least knew it had answers. It had a new offense, a new quarterback and reason to put that game behind them. And the Nittany Lions did just that, winning 26 of their next 31 games, winning a Big Ten Title, barely missing the playoffs all while developing a host of NFL-quality players. The 2016 and 2017 seasons were the end result of questions answered.

Those players are gone or soon to depart. That offensive coordinator is now a head coach. Answers have turned back into questions.

So while Saturday night's loss is not much different on paper than that in 2016, it feels much different for a program that has been so high up the mountain. It feels like the bookend to a span of time where Penn State was the program it says it wants to be.

Over the next three games the Nittany Lions will face a trio of teams that have a combined record of 12-15. Wins will continue to uphold a certain status quo, a fact that Penn State is better than your average Big Ten team, able to overcome its own issues with talent and skill, sometimes in spite of itself.

In truth, it's not entirely impossible Penn State still stumbles to 10 wins.

But an otherwise meaningful accomplishment will feel hollow, like the downslope of a rollercoaster. In 2019 the Nittany Lions shouldn't be tested by anything approximating a real challenge until Week 6 with a trip to Iowa. In Week 7, hosting Michigan will provide the first real chance to reevaluate Penn State's standing in the college football world. A bowl game against a quality team aside, the Nittany Lions will play eight of their next nine games against teams they should beat. The litmus test will come after.

So James Franklin and his staff will continue to work toward those answers they have desperately looked for. Answers in the final minutes of close games, answers to offensive identity, answers to who they lean on in a post-McSorley, post-Barkley, post-Moorhead world.

And unlike 2016 when Penn State left Ann Arbor with reasons to be hopeful for the future, the Nittany Lions fly back to State College two years later with far more questions.

How those questions are answered and who does the answering will determine whether Saturday night was the end of a run, or simply the intermission.



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