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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Will Be Fine In 2019, But They'll Probably Need The Bounces

by on April 08, 2019 1:30 PM

One of my favorite things about sports is the collision between meticulous preparation and the completely arbitrary moments you can't plan for.

Take, for example, Grant Haley's blocked field goal return in 2016.

The block was designed, or at least that's what everyone says after the fact. Marcus Allen getting a hand on it was part of the plan, everything else was luck. That ball could have rolled in nearly an infinite number of directions and for Penn State it just so happened to bounce in the most favorable one.

Haley could have done a million different things in that moment. He could have tripped, he could have tried to scoop up the ball and missed, he could have been looking the other way and never had the chance to make the play in the first place.

John Reid could have intercepted an overthrown pass on third down, he nearly did.

But everything worked out perfectly.

None of that was planned, it just happened. For all the millions of dollars and thousands of hours that go into football programs, both team's seasons turned in that moment because of something neither of them could control. It is, in my eyes, kind of hilarious.

In truth much of Penn State's success in 2016, and to a certain extent, moments in 2017, were a product of this. What if Ohio State doesn't beat Michigan in overtime and the Nittany Lions miss out on Indianapolis? What if Irv Charles never turns around to catch the ball and spark a rainy comeback against Minnesota?

What if Saquon was exactly what the recruiting sites said, a very good player but not a generational one? What if he had stayed committed to Rutgers? What if JT Barratt didn't play a perfect fourth quarter in Columbus? What if there isn't a rain delay in East Lansing? What if Penn State finished a few more first half drives against the Buckeyes last year? What if Trace McSorley didn't get hurt in Orlando, what if he started a little better in the Rose Bowl?

What if?

That's not to say that the success was undeserved, but for every amazing play that was made on purpose, there were all those moments that could have had a different outcome. It's hard to talk about one and ignore the other. Then again, that's why they play the game, to see who can generate the ups and win in spite of the downs.

Heading into 2019 and this weekend's Blue White game, it's not really a question of what the team will or will not look like. The scrimmage, with all due respect, is kind of pointless from the perspective of coming up with some informed opinion about the season. The offense is watered down, the defense the same. The depth chart is a hodgepodge of players and everyone is just trying avoid either getting a sunburn or getting rained on.

But it does mark the start of another year, and another cycle of chance.

It seems likely that Penn State, simply from a talent perspective, ought to be a program with a baseline of nine wins and then adding or subtracting from there. 

Beyond that it's sort of anyone's guess right now.

So the question really is not what will team look like this weekend, but what will happen when the unexpected happens a few months down the road. The challenge for James Franklin and his staff is preparing their team for the moments they can control and the ones nobody can prepare for. Because it seems that there are two ways to win in college football. You win by brute force, an insurmountable collection of talent that wins in spite of its own mistakes while minimizing them in the first place; or you make the most of your opportunities. Penn State is getting closer to the talent option, but it isn't in the business of turning down a little luck just yet.

For fans, and for the program, that will continue to be the hardest part about the 2017 season to swallow. Penn State was equipped to win a national title, it was ready for the brute force route and it -- even with a respectable overall finish -- fell short by a fairly wide margin relative to what it could have done.

Now Penn State has to wait for another chance, another obvious window. There are only 23 players on Penn State's roster that were around for 2016. It will be able to manufacture wins thanks to tireless recruiting and increased talent, but it has a few bridges to cross before it can call itself a Clemson, Alabama or Ohio State. Two of those three are in a recruiting footprint already more flush with talent than the Mid-Atlantic.

In fairness, anyone would be lying to you if they said the 2016 season had been on their radar. Sometimes the best seasons surprise everyone. But with so many question marks, assuming it will be another landmark year would be overly optimistic for no particular reason beyond the cautious optimism of being undefeated in April.

All of this is to say that until further notice the offseason prognosis is going to be the same. The Nittany Lions are going to be in every game, they're going to win more than they lose, but in those big moments it might come down to which way the breaks go.

And sometimes even after months of preparation the bounces, arbitrary and unbiased, make all the difference.

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