One point, that is all that has separated Penn State from Ohio State the past two years. Back to back years of crushing last-minute defeats. Two straight years of blown fourth-quarter leads and plenty of questions to be answered.
While last year’s defeat in Columbus hurt brutally, the result of last Saturday’s contest in Happy Valley is going to leave a sour taste in the mouths of Penn State fans for a while. Up by two scores with less than a half of a quarter to play, and then just like last year, a fourth-quarter meltdown.
Penn State was up by 12, and then Ohio State, led by Dwayne Haskins, marched down the field twice to score and take a 27-26 lead. The results would hold from there. With over two minutes left, Penn State did get the ball back and it looked like Trace McSorley was going to be the hero yet again, like he has done so many times in his career – most recently against Appalachian State.
But on fourth-and-5, after calling two timeouts, the Lions ran a zone read handoff to Miles Sanders. Sanders had not had any room to run for most of the night, so what made Penn State think it was going to work there? Why take the ball out of the hands of your best player on the biggest play of the game? The guy who had accounted for over 400 yards of offense. Just doesn’t make sense.
So, what is it going to take to beat Ohio State after coming so close the past two years? When will the Nittany Lions take that next step into the top tier of teams in college football? Most importantly, just how close is Penn State to being on the level of teams like Alabama and Clemson?
They obviously must be pretty close, given the fact that they have lost by only one point to the Buckeyes in subsequent years. To go even deeper, Penn State was only four points away from an undefeated season last year and five points away from having not lost since the Rose Bowl game in January of 2017.
So obviously, the Nittany Lions are pretty darn close. As head coach James Franklin admitted after the game, Penn State is a great team, but not yet an elite team. Franklin said his team still needs to correct the “small stuff” if they want to go from great to elite.
You must be a pretty good team when the “small stuff” is considered a field goal here, a missed tackle there, and a costly turnover deep in your own territory. Penn State really is that close. If just one of those things does not happen on Saturday night, then the Lions likely walk away from that game victorious and are being talked about as elite by the national media.
“We can no longer accept being great, we must be elite,” and, “we need to get comfortable being uncomfortable,” are just a couple of Franklin’s quotes from his emotional almost 12-minute press conference after last Saturday’s crushing defeat. But what does he mean by that?
Usually in sports, being great is a good thing. To be called a great team is a huge compliment, but in college being called great is nice if you are a lesser college football program. When you are one of the most prominent programs in the nation, you want to be among the elites. It is time for Penn State to be talked amongst the top four or five teams in the nation; and, it is just a few small things that separate them from that top tier.
Franklin’s first task was to take this team from average to good, he did that. Good to great, he did that. Two years ago, beating Ohio State was a huge win in the programs rebound from the sanction era, it sparked a run that thrust the team back into the national conversation. It ended a string of 6-6, 7-5, and 8-4 seasons that culminated in some mid-December bowl game. It moved the program into 10 and 11-win seasons and big bowl games, like the Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl.
As Franklin said, there is nothing wrong with being great. But if this program wants to take the next step and achieve their goals, then it can’t settle down.
Trust me, the Fiesta Bowl win was great, and winning the Big Ten Championship was awesome, but this program and its fans have their eyes set on something higher. The goal now is making the College Football Playoff. Something that, heading into the season, did not seem too far-fetched.
Will Penn State reach that stage this season? It is still possible but will be very tough. The Nittany Lions likely need to win out and have Ohio State lose at least two games. Winning out won’t be easy, as Michigan State, Iowa, and Wisconsin still are on tap to come into Beaver Stadium, and a trip to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan still looms.
If the Nittany Lions can run the table they at least deserve consideration into the College Football Playoff and, if you add a Big Ten Championship to that, then they will be well on their way to reaching that “elite stage.”
Even if it doesn’t happen this year, Penn State will still likely be in a big bowl game come season’s end. But will this season be a success if the Nittany Lions do not take the next step from great to the elite?
Penn State has everything possible to become an elite program. Money, facilities, fan base, history, passion, recruiting, coaching and talent. It is all there. Now, it just all needs to come together, and if it does, then the future for this program is extremely bright.
Saquon Barkley may have left last season, and McSorley will be gone following this one, but the talent on this Penn State roster is only improving. Franklin is one of the best recruiters in the country, so lack of talent will never be an issue with this team.
There is all the faith in the world that those little adjustments will be made, and Franklin will take this program on that next step.
It will be here faster than you think, and when it does come, it will be oh so sweet.
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