Takeaways: Penn State Falls on Senior Day
After nine years of finishing the regular season with an above .500 record, the Nittany Lions finally finished 6-6, just scraping out their first bowl eligible season since 2011. It certainly wasn’t a pretty season, and it while it easily could have ended with a few more wins had a few plays gone differently, the record is about representative of the team’s play. While Saturday’s loss wasn’t the same as most of the close heartbreakers this team has suffered, it too was fairly representative of the season. From missed opportunities, to questionable calls, here are our takeaways from this game.
Big plays kill this team
One of the really unfortunate parts about Saturday was that it was pretty close for a large portion of the game. While the score wasn’t within ten points after the first quarter, for the most part, it didn’t feel as if the game was too out of hand. Take away the opening play, add the touchdown that slipped out of Godwin’s hands into Trae Waynes’, and at halftime, this is a tie game. Later in the game, if the defensive line can stop Langford from pushing his way to the end zone, four points come off the board, and if the team can stop, or even recover, the Hackenberg fumble, it is a completely different game.
Now, obviously, these key mistakes are, for the most part, on the Nittany Lions, but if one or two swing the other way, this game more than likely would have stayed close for far longer, and would have given Penn State a real opportunity to come out with a victory. Big plays are everything, especially in a game with so much emphasis on momentum, and to have all of those plays go wrong — not to mention Sam Ficken’s only non-blocked miss of the year — absolutely destroys a team’s chances, no matter how well they play otherwise.
Defense can only get you so far against good teams
No matter how good this defense has been, against a team like Michigan State who has scored no less than 27 points in each of its 12 games, you’re going to give a little. If the Nittany Lions held the Spartans to even 21, the game would have still ended two possessions apart, which is completely unacceptable. If this team wants to win in a bowl against an even somewhat competitive team, it needs to do better than just 10 points.
Even when given incredible field position, this offense couldn’t capitalize more often than not, throwing away multiple opportunities to score and close the gap. Of the three drives starting in Michigan State territory, the results were a total of three points, one turnover, and a punt. It’s hard to believe a team with figures like those only gained 65 fewer yards than the team that hung 34 points on them, but, somehow it happened.
This coaching staff needs another year
Now, listen, I grew up with the Andy Reid-era Philadelphia Eagles, so I love yelling at coaches as much as the next guy, but the biggest problem here probably isn’t the coaching. When you look at the difference between this offense and defense, it’s not as if they’re on a level playing field talent-wise. While Bob Shoop probably has something to do with the defensive unit stacking up where it does nationally, and John Donovan’s play calls may be far from perfect, one of the most telling things is that, of all the offensive starters, only two, Miles Dieffenbach and Kyle Carter, are seniors, whereas four seniors on defense, in addition to role player Brad Bars, and injured safety Ryan Keiser are on defense. Not to mention that arguably the two most impactful players this year — Anthony Zettel and Mike Hull — were both senior leaders on the defensive side.
Sure, the coaching is far from perfect, but this is a team that has a lot of growing to do, especially offensively. To judge its work in just one, tumultuous year, would be a disservice to the coaches and players who may finally be getting used to these new styles. It’s tough for a team with so much history to accept 6-6 as good enough, but for now, it will have to be.
These seniors, just like the two classes of seniors that came before them, deserve our everlasting thanks
Call it cliché or lame or boring or a hamburger or literally anything you want, but this was another class of incredible seniors that could have done anything they wanted at any school in the country, but stayed and made an impact here. It’s been beaten to death for two-plus years, but without this group, this team wouldn’t have been half as successful as it was this year. From Hull and Zettel keeping the team in every game it should have been blown out in, to Kyle Carter creating a stable option for Hackenberg, and even the combo of Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak creating a tandem that did all it could to supplement a struggling passing game, these men made a huge impact on this team.
And then there’s Sam Ficken, who went from rock bottom to setting the school’s single-season record for most field goals made, while consistently converting the offense’s otherwise failed drives into points that kept the team in the game, and sometimes even won it. I feel bad singling one man out, but after the absolute hell he went through in 2012, he deserves it.
Thank you seniors, all 17 of you honored today. You’ve done incredible things for this team, football program, and university, and I hope I speak for Penn Staters everywhere when I say you will be remembered.