Just like that, Penn State is playing for scraps.
In the year 2020, maybe it’s OK to be grateful for that, to be playing for any stakes at all, even for the pride of a prideful college football program.
Nobody wants to be the best 0-2 team in America, but that’s Penn State right now. No nonconference games to gloss up the record. No way to get that last call at Indiana overturned or not score that touchdown the Nittany Lions should not have scored. No chance anybody is going to wonder if maybe the Nittany Lions were just unlucky against Ohio State.
The third-ranked Buckeyes showed up in Happy Valley Saturday night and left without anybody questioning the billing. This was a reminder, how right now Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State are expected to compete every season for national titles, and Penn State is in a larger next group, trying like crazy to ascend but with very little room to maneuver.
The Buckeyes did more on their very first play from scrimmage than the Nittany Lions could counter with all night. While the official Beaver Stadium final scoreboard count showed 38-25, the telling number was zero, the number of minutes when you thought Penn State had a real chance to win.
You want to be generous, maybe Penn State’s faithful dared to dream for a minute or two when the Nits closed within 31-19 early in the fourth quarter. An Ohio State drive quickly snuffed that out, with two fourth-down passes thrown in just to confirm how this was going.
"We really never were able to get them off schedule,'' James Franklin said right afterward, confirming that Penn State’s coaches understood going in that field goals couldn’t be traded for touchdowns, that going for it on their opening series, fourth-and-2 from their own 45-yard line, the Nittany Lions knew they would have to take chances. (Didn’t work. Ohio State held, and scored again five plays later.)
It’s almost impossible to win when the other guys control the line of scrimmage, offense and defense. Penn State had no rushing game to speak of, and it’s hard to imagine that would have been radically different if Saquon Barkley or Miles Sanders were still back there.
The other way, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields mostly had a grand old time, polishing up his very real Heisman candidacy. Fields now has the poise of a veteran QB, to blend with his ++ athleticism and his +++ field awareness. Maybe if you traded offensive lines, we’d see it differently, but that’s not how it works. Fields earns every plaudit he gets.
Maybe the most telling comment Franklin made afterward was in response to a question about Penn State’s defense not being ready for a play that resulted in an Ohio State touchdown. The coaches wanted a specific package for the play. A Nittany Lions defender wasn’t ready to get on the field. You saw the resulting late scramble. You also saw Fields easily find the hole in the PSU scheme.
"We were in our ‘Dollar’ package, we had a young man who didn’t go on the field,'' Franklin said. “We called ‘Dollar.’ The guy doesn’t go out on the field. Those are the things that are happening, that should never happen. We haven’t really had those issues in six years.”
Should Franklin have called a timeout? Sure, fine. Maybe that scheme hole could have been filled up, maybe not. It does not change the fact that Penn State’s head coach is aware that his team isn’t consistently showing the kind of acuity that wins titles.
Could a White Out crowd have made a difference? Sure, go with that. But there’s nothing unfair about two teams lining up in a near-empty stadium, best squad wins.
So a lost Penn State season? Slow down. There’s still a lot to learn about this team. Quarterback Sean Clifford can say how if you’re not motivated after two losses, “I don’t want you here” — good for him, really.
Playing for scraps? In the larger picture, yes. A team that starts its season eighth nationally in the Associated Press poll is entitled to dream big. No longer. Check the Big Ten East standings and you’ll notice Penn State is the only winless squad.
The schedule allows the Nittany Lions to move up ahead of Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers, and Michigan State. That’s what’s on the line. Anything other than a 6-2 regular season will be seen as failure. Margin for error: zero.
Tough margin for a group that has already made its share of them.