Penn State Football Is Closing Gap On the Best of the Best

By Matt de Bear on October 29, 2017 at 1:00 pm
Oct 28, 2017; Columbus, OH, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin reacts from the sidelines against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago during James Franklin's first trip to Ohio Stadium, his team was run off of the field by the Buckeyes, 38-10. Four years ago, well, we won't be talking about that one. Yesterday, Penn State was one point away from firmly locking their playoff path in place. In four years of visits to Columbus, it has gone from 49 points, to 28, to one.

Two years ago, Penn State cobbled together a 7-5 season for a Bowl birth, ironically enough against a Georgia team that now sits at 8-0 and firmly in control of their playoff destiny. Now, the Lions are a day removed from going toe-to-toe with one of the most talented teams in the country on their field. 

Of course that game was winnable. Eleven point leads with less than six minutes left should be safe. But to just dismiss that as Penn State choking or some sort of massive coaching blunder is naive. The Nittany Lions were defeated by a quarterbacking performance for the ages, by a fifth year senior, on his field, with his legacy as a legendary program's best ever at the position in the balance.

All J.T. Barrett did was go 13-for-13 in the final quarter for 170 yards and 3 touchdowns. He did it against a defensive line that was down to its third and fourth options at defensive end after a first quarter injury to Ryan Buchholz. Yes, Penn State's depth is improving, but a pair of redshirt freshman and a true freshman, all with exceedingly bright futures, were thrown into the biggest spots of their young career. That matters.

What also matters is that Penn State went toe-to-toe for 60 minutes with inarguably the most talented roster in the Big Ten (and maybe the most talented in the nation outside of Alabama), in their stadium, and was mere inches away from the upset. Yes, an upset. The Lions were touchdown underdogs on Saturday. But as great players are known to do, Barrett made more than a few plays down the stretch. To be frank, they were plays that Penn State made a year ago against another very good Ohio State team, right down to a huge block on special teams.

Ohio State's best players made plays down the stretch, and Penn State's best players made great plays of their own throughout. What felt rather apparent was just how many "best players" the Buckeyes could turn to. There is NFL talent littered across that roster. And not only are those players full of ability, they are experienced.

The Buckeyes rolled out first round talent at every position along the defensive line. It was there where they ultimately swung the game. They were matched up against a Penn State line compromised of a redshirt freshman left tackle, a redshirt sophomore left guard, a true sophomore center, the lone senior starter at left guard, and a backup at right tackle. It's almost laughable to think that group was going to consistently handle the likes of Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes, and Dre'Mont Jones. Only one player of that group is an underclassmen. Again, that matters.

Go ahead and be frustrated and disappointed. But let's not lose sight of the fact that this is still a very good Penn State team, one that still may be one of the four best in the country. It is a team that — despite a gap in talent and an even bigger gap in experience — was one point away from going from a blowout loss two years ago to a massive victory.

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