Penn State Football: In The End, No Matter How It Looked, 10 Wins Is 10 Wins
In the grand scheme of Penn State football history, nobody is really going to remember the Nittany Lions' slogging 27-6 victory over Rutgers.
They're going to remember the 10 wins, they're going to remember another successful season in the shadow of sanctions that were supposed to cripple the program for decades. Did Penn State lose to Minnesota? Sure. Did it get outclassed by Ohio State? Sort of.
But the Nittany Lions won 10 games. They finished above nearly everyone else in the conference and played winning football just enough to overcome a stretch of games against teams that have laid ruin to promising seasons past. They beat Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State and put up the best fight to date against maybe the best team in the nation.
So does it really matter that they looked indifferent in a game everyone was indifferent about?
A win is a win is a win, and Penn State has a shot at 11 of them this year.
"In this conference it's hard to win games in general," running back Journey Brown said after the game. "Every team in the Big Ten is going to come out and play hard, every game at this level is hard. So regardless of what team it is, what their record is, who they have, how many scholarships they have — it's hard to win football games in general. Just keeping consistent and just keep going.
"We're not satisfied but we're definitely grateful for what we have."
College football in 2019 does not exist with the same parameters that it once had. Not long ago 10-win seasons were revered with the same respect as 20-win seasons in college basketball. Maybe you didn't win the BCS, maybe you didn't win your conference, but you did a good job and that was enough. Fans were able to contain success within a more relative context.
Now it's a four-team playoff that serves as the barometer of success for many of the nation's high-profile programs. Sure, you beat everyone you should have, but then you lost to the other teams just like you, and now you're watching from home. Did you really have success, did you really meet your goals?
The answer, of course, is yes. In reality there are a lot of teams that would like to go to the playoffs and very few teams that can really do it. Penn State played well against Ohio State, but the Buckeyes boast three Heisman hopefuls and complimentary players to boot. They were the better team from the outset, and no amount of scheming was going to change that.
So to measure Penn State's season against Ohio State's is a bit of a red herring. The Nittany Lions are chasing down the Buckeyes and are arguably closer to that level of play than most everyone, but the gap is not insignificant, the bridge not easy to build.
In turn it is fair to measure Penn State against what it wants to be, but the results are not the only measuring sticks, nor is the failure to pass Ohio State an indictment of the process in attempting to do so.
"It's hard to win no matter who you're playing no matter what day it is," linebacker Cam Brown added. "It's hard to win in college football, especially Division I, especially in a stage like this."
It can be easy to contextualize Penn State's progress in the college football world as a singular unchanging concept, like an NFL team that has the power to pay for continuity. It can be a simple line of thinking to see a five-year span of moderate success as stagnant, that 10-win seasons without victories over Ohio State or others are a sign of a systemic failure.
And there is admittedly some truth to this. Penn State has questions it needs to find solutions to on both sides of the ball and areas on and off the field in need of improvement. To say Penn State is sustaining a half-decade long period of high-quality success is not the same thing as saying the Nittany Lions are perfect.
But the solution might be found in the long battle with time and circumstance. Penn State won in 2016 and 2017 with a perfect storm of players and fortune. Good bounces went Penn State's way, 50/50 balls were caught, big plays happened and a player named Saquon Barkley decided to call Happy Valley home.
The challenge for Penn State football is not taking the next step in one forceful sweep but maintaining the success it has had while slowly inching forward. Better to always be 10-2 and knocking on the door than 8-4 and hoping to bounce back, all of this in the fishbowl of the Big Ten East. If anything, the volume of questions James Franklin and his staff faced heading into 2019 and the ability to coach their way to a 10-win season is more proof of concept than losses to Minnesota and Ohio State are proof of flaws.
"This is a huge accomplishment for us," wideout Jahan Dotson said with a smile. "Because we didn't reach that last year. It's my first time. I've only been on the program two years, and it's my first time getting 10 wins. So that's pretty cool."
It's fair to be critical of Penn State's losses, the steps in the journey James Franklin is trying to take the Nittany Lions on and the methods of travel it uses in an attempt to get where it wants to go. But yet again Penn State football hit the 10-win mark with no particular end to that trend in sight.
And in the long run that matters a lot more than how it looked against Rutgers.