The 2020 season was a lonely one for the Penn State Nittany Lions, who returned to campus in groups during June after three or more months at home resulting from the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Most players went back home in August when the Big Ten said no to a college football season, then reversed course again when the conference said yes on Sept. 16. They isolated themselves from that point to keep COVID away, but one of the costs of that exercise was not being able to see their families except for a brief glimpse after games.
The Nittany Lions have a chance to finish the season Saturday against Illinois with their fourth straight win, which would put them in the running for a bowl game despite a 4-5 record. After being away from their families and friends for so long, however, the one question they must answer is:
Is going to a bowl game worth it?
As of Thursday, seven teams – Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Stanford, and Kansas State – have decided they’d rather spend the holiday season at home than remain in the team bubble to go on a bowl trip. That total may grow, which could leave some of the 32 remaining bowl games (11 have been canceled) without a Power 5 team.
Penn State has been projected on various websites to be a possibility for one of two bowls – the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Dec. 26 in Phoenix, or the Duke’s Mayo Bowl on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, N.C. Bowl eligibility requirements have been waived for this season by the NCAA Division I Council.
For his part, Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin chose not to address the issue this week, saying that his focus was on Illinois.
“Saturday night after the game – as you know, we take a 1-0 mentality – we’ll have another discussion,” he said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.
Players interviewed in the past week sound as if they’re all in.
“Definitely,” junior wide receiver Jahan Dotson said. “I wouldn’t want any other thing but to play with my brothers. You only get so many opportunities to suit up in the blue and white. Any time I get a chance to play for those guys in the locker room, I’m going to do it, absolutely.”
“It would honestly be a great opportunity, an honor to receive a bowl invite,” said junior linebacker Jesse Luketa. “We’re just focused on going out strong for our seniors this week. It’s going to be a great opportunity if it does come and it’ll be an opportunity that I’m going to make sure I maximize if given, so that’s where we’re at.”
Luketa, who is from Ottawa, Ontario, is no stranger to being away from home. He left at age 14 to play high school football in the United States, with a goal of landing at a high-level college program.
“I’ve been doing this for quite some time, being away from my family,” he said.
Redshirt sophomore offensive tackle Rasheed Walker said he had not been home in Waldorf, Md., since May. He said that he is learning how to be on his own, and that he’s comfortable with it.
“I’ve been in State College all this time,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter to me. I’m just thankful to be here. I’m good whatever my brothers are with. If we’re going to play [in a bowl], I’m playing. That’s just my mindset on that.
“I knew at one point it was like no one knew if we were going to be able to play this season. So I’m just thankful to be able to play one game this season. Everything else is just a bonus for me.”
If there is one member of the program who has a reason for not extending the season, it’s Franklin, who is eager to reunite with his wife and his two daughters. They have been in Florida since the summer to stay safe because his younger daughter has sickle cell.
“I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters, I can’t express it to you,” Franklin said in a candid moment last week. “One of the big things for me [is] not only getting down to see my family, but how can I get my family back here at some point … and keep my daughter safe without really having anywhere near here that can handle sickle cell?”
The Nittany Lions went to a bowl in each of Franklin’s previous six seasons. Depending on what is decided after Saturday, they will be saying goodbye to 12 seniors plus third-year players like tight end Pat Freiermuth and defensive end Jayson Oweh, both of whom are expected to declare for the NFL draft.
Maybe sooner, maybe later.
Dotson was voted an honorable-mention returner in voting for All-Big Ten special teams. In all, Penn State had a total of 10 players named to one of the three all-conference teams or honorable mention on offense, defense, and special teams in separate votes of coaches and media.