Gameday Observations: TaxSlayer Bowl
Trace McSorley fired a Hail Mary that was swatted to the turf with zeroes on the clock, and Penn State’s 2015 season came to an end with a 24-17 loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Still, football is football and a bowl game is a bowl game — we spent a few days in Jacksonville, and here are some of our personal and behind-the-scenes takeaways from the trip.
For once, James Franklin’s postgame quotes were pertinent. The PR machine himself has some good jokes but otherwise sticks to a pretty strict press conference protocol. He gives no insight about injuries or strategy, nor does he give other teams any extra motivation (always saying “We want to go 1-0 this week” as if he actually believes beating Buffalo and Ohio State are equivalent). But after the TaxSlayer Bowl, his broad and optimistic quotes felt in place. Talking about the state of the program and noting that it’ll finally have the full 85 scholarships in 2016 seems out of place after playing, say, Indiana, but now that the postseason is here, it’s a good point. The TaxSlayer Bowl was a disappointing loss, but damn it if Franklin isn’t right. Big things are on the horizon.
There’s a time and place for the relentless Mr. Nice Guy act, and when it’s right it’s awesome. After his postgame presser ended, Franklin left the media room and I just happened to walk out right behind him. As we both headed towards Penn State’s locker room, he stopped and shook the hands of every single Georgia player and coach that he passed — and there were a lot. He was genuine in his praise, and that was reflected on the big smiles on the Bulldogs’ faces.
No matter their individual and future success, the departing players deserved more. The graduating senior class as well as the juniors who declared for the NFL Draft (Hackenberg and Johnson) made unforgettable impacts on a program with a future in doubt.
“I don’t know if you could count on one hand how many programs would’ve survived what we survived,” Hackenberg said after the game. But in their last collegiate games, Carl Nassib got mostly shut down, Hackenberg left with an early injury, and Zettel and Johnson made sporadic plays but still had a tough time with Georgia’s rushing attack. The Nittany Lions’ stars fizzled out when many expected a supernova, and their sudden absences leave us wanting even more than we expected.
With nothing left to prove, Hackenberg still went out on a high note. A season removed from throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, Penn State’s high-profile quarterback got injured in his last game before declaring for the draft. Rather than voice any personal frustrations, he explained that he was mostly frustrated that he couldn’t finish the game for the seniors and the rest of his teammates.
“Every time I stepped in that building, every time I had an opportunity to represent the university and the football program, I always tried to do it to the best of my ability and I hope that was good enough[…]” He faced criticism at every turn, but that comes with the profession. In the short term, onlookers care more about an underthrown screen pass than they do the record 8,000 career passing yards. I think Penn State fans’ perspective on Hackenberg will steadily improve the longer he’s away from the program, oddly enough — and while there were plays we wish he would’ve made and games we wish he would’ve won, that’s true of every player. Hopefully the fanbase comes to the realization sooner rather than later, and regardless of what you think about his professional prospects, the positive work he did at Penn State deserves praise.
EverBank Field is worthy of Allen Robinson. The TaxSlayer Bowl was held in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stadium, and though I only had a brief glimpse into the fan experience, it seemed that it was a lot of fun despite being a destination and neutral site. The 58,212 attendees in a stadium built for 67,000 wasn’t ideal, but it looked like the stands were fun anyway. Georgia fans predictably showed up in more force, probably accounting for two-thirds of the crowd, but Penn State’s late comeback attempt was complemented by a decent amount of cheering.
Jacksonville was good, but Penn State missed out on some beautiful locales. The Jacksonville beach is actually pretty nice in January, and Soul Food Bistro changed my life. That being said, here’s where the other bowl-eligible Big Ten teams went: New York City, Santa Clara, Detroit, San Diego, Arlington, Tampa Bay, Orlando, Glendale, and Pasadena. West Coast games would be bad, New York City was already done, and Detroit hosted an inglorious bowl, but that’s not a bad list. Remember that the Nittany Lions were held back by decision-making and execution that just wasn’t enough to win two more games. A TaxSlayer Bowl bid in Jacksonville is fine, but the Citrus Bowl (where Michigan beat Florida 41-7) and the Outback Bowl (where Northwestern got its ass kicked by Tennessee 45-6) were within reach.
A loss is a loss, but at least we got a taste of the future. Joe Moorhead hasn’t publicly accomplished anything yet, but his presence on the sideline evaluating talent was exciting. He’s been a great coach his whole career, and there are lofty expectations for him that he might just meet. On the field, redshirt freshman quarterback Trace McSorley looked good against the nation’s No. 1 passing defense. True freshman Saquon Barkley kept up his historic season on the ground, and Chris Godwin had a huge bowl game again. Defensively, there are a lot of questions marks for next season. The safety position was clearly better before Jordan Lucas’ injury, so can Allen/Golden/Apke start all season and succeed? Can Nyeem Wartman-White return from missing a season and be the next great linebacker that he was expected to be? With three-fourths of the dominant defensive line gone, will it be any good? And another outstanding recruiting class is coming in, so will any players step up and make Saquon-esque impacts right away?
College football is a cruel mistress, presenting itself as entertainment before breaking your heart. It makes teenagers look like giants, then it shoots at them with a slingshot. It’s writing until 5 a.m. then tailgating at 9 — it’s the salvation at the end of a long week, and it’s the reason the week felt so long.
So I guess my final observation this season is that at face value, this is a game and it’s a damn fun one. It’s where students obsessively analyze every aspect of the game in an attempt to seem wiser than they are, and it’s where jaded alumni can feel like students again alongside 107,000 friends.
We’ll see you in Beaver Stadium on September 3 for another undoubtedly wild, frustrating, inspiring, deflating, beautiful year of Penn State football.