Even though Penn State was losing to Wisconsin, 28-14, at halftime of the Big Ten championship game Saturday night, El Hombre felt compelled to text El Nino, a junior at UW, a warning about the Nittany Lions’ third-quarter prowess throughout the 2016 season.
It seems the folks in Madison were feeling pretty comfortable with the game and no doubt thought the first 30 minutes would serve as an accurate indication of what was to come after intermission.
Boy, were they wrong.
Penn State blew up in the second half, using a 24-3 burst to earn a 38-31 victory and its first ever win in the conference title game. It was a scintillating end to a big season, which began 2-2 and included some not-so quiet suggestions that head coach James Franklin wasn’t the right man for the job. Nine straight wins later, PSU is heading to the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten’s ancestral post-season home—Michigan routed Stanford, 49-0, in the first ever Granddaddy—to take on USC. There is cause for celebration throughout the state and plenty of reasons for optimism about 2017 and beyond.
But that doesn’t mean Nittany Lions fans aren’t upset that their heroes weren’t selected for the College Football Playoff. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington earned the four spots, and though PSU beat the Buckeyes in October, it dropped a pair of games in September, one of which was a 49-10 beating administered by Michigan. Although Penn State surged forward after that, the two losses were more than any of the four playoff participants absorbed and negated the Nittany Lions’ status as Big Ten champs.
Those upset with the omission have to understand that the small field forces the committee to make choices based on which schools it believes are the best in the country, not who won league titles. If that were the case, Big 12 champion Oklahoma would have just as strong a claim as Penn State, since it also finished on a 9-0 run and captured its last five games by double figures, although the Sooners did lose to Ohio State at home in September. Even though the Nittany Lions beat OSU by three points, the Buckeyes didn’t lose any other games and vanquished the same Michigan team that routed Penn State, on Nov. 26.
Just as Wolverines fans must accept that U-M’s ugly loss at Iowa late in the season put it at a deficit in the Selection Committee’s eyes, so too must Penn State supporters admit that the two early defeats hurt. Were this an eight or even six-team tournament, PSU would have been in. But with just four spots available and four teams with zero or one loss, Penn State wasn’t attractive enough, whether it beat Wisconsin or not. The same goes for the Badgers. Had they held on to beat PSU, they wouldn’t have earned an invitation either.
Once the initial disappointment wears off, Penn State fans can look forward to the game with USC and what could be an even bigger 2017 season. The Lions’ most recent depth chart lists just four senior starters on offense and defense, and both QB Trace McSorley, who threw for 384 yards and four TDs against Wisconsin, and running back Saquon Barkley, who gained 1,302 yards and scored 16 times this year, are back. PSU has seven home games, including visits from Pitt, Michigan and Nebraska. What looked to be a bleak scenario in late September is now an exciting future. It doesn’t include a shot at the title, but it has plenty of other things to excite the blue-and-white faithful.
EL HOMBRE SEZ: It’s borderline criminal that first-year coach Doug Pederson is absorbing most of the heat for the Eagles’ belly flop. Granted, he’s made his share of mistakes, but the real blame for this season’s disaster belongs to owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman. The owner made the historic mistake to hire Maximum Leader, opting for entertainment over NFL savvy and setting back the franchise for several years. Roseman bestowed big contracts on a variety of players—Fletcher Cox, Zach Ertz, Vinny Curry among them—who haven’t lived up to their paychecks. Pederson is left to lead an undermanned team into battle and is unlikely to have a dramatically improved roster at his disposal in the coming years, thanks to the franchise’s inept leadership.