EAST LANSING, Mich. — The look in Troy Reeder eyes did as good a job telling the tale of what happened to Penn State on Saturday night as the Spartan Stadium scoreboard did.
When he’d look down, you could see the disappointment in them.
When he’d look up to answer a question about how Michigan State not only piled up yard after yard and touchdown after touchdown, and did it so effortlessly, they’d flash some anger.
When he’d look around at his teammates, insisting the Nittany Lions had exactly what they needed to turn this program around someday, they glimmered with hope. Though, the disappointment and the anger often trumped it on a night like this.
“I think it’s more than just ‘a win is a win and a loss is a loss,’ ” Penn State’s sophomore linebacker said, reciting one of the mantras the Nittany Lions leaned on during better times this season. “When we lose, and we know we didn’t play to the best of our abilities, I think it stings more. Today, that’s an example of what happened. All three phases of the game, all around, we believe we’re a better team than that.”
Well, history will say otherwise after Penn State got steamrolled, 55-16, by a Spartans team that showed just how far the Nittany Lions have to go to get where they want to be. For sure, that’s where Michigan State is right now.
Coach Mark Dantonio’s Spartans will face Iowa in Indianapolis on Saturday for the Big Ten Championship in what is a de facto play-in game for the College Football Playoff that starts New Year’s Eve.
Meanwhile, Penn State goes home. It will hope to get healthy, because it can’t like the look of how it played Saturday without star defensive end Carl Nassib and his cohort, sophomore Garrett Sickels. It will hope to get a decent bowl game, though it almost assuredly won’t get a high-profile one. It will hope for a chance to show that the team it believes itself to be is not far from the team that showed up in the last three games, bumbling and stumbling its way into plenty of doubt about its future.
Penn State entered the homestretch at 7-2 with three games against ranked opponents — Northwestern, mighty Michigan and Michigan State. The Nittany Lions lost all three, but without question, the one that should leave fans feeling the most frustrated, the furthest away from getting to that place where the Spartans are now, is the last one. The one against a solid-as-can-be Michigan State program that exposed its every weakness on the way to the East Division title.
Fans don’t want to read about excuses, but they confuse them sometimes with reasons. And reasons are perfectly legitimate ways to explain why something is.
Penn State had depth issues Saturday.
Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook told reporters after the game that Penn State’s vaunted defense, which entered the game as the nation’s leader in quarterback sacks, not only didn’t sack him, it didn’t lay a hand on him. Pass after pass on the way to his 248-yard, three-touchdown performance, he had nothing but clean pockets.
Penn State, of course, didn’t have Nassib or Sickels, the former a strong candidate for defensive player of the year and the latter perhaps the defense’s best young player. What they had behind them wasn’t experienced enough, or frankly good enough yet, to help fill the gap.
“We have been able to get pressure on everybody, pretty much, all year long,” head coach James Franklin said. “But when you take your two starting defensive ends off your unit, that’s going to have an effect. You’d love to have someone to step up in those roles, but we lost two starters. That has an effect. That has a big effect.”
Penn State had blocking issues Saturday.
It’s difficult to blame the offensive line for what happened against Michigan State, because it actually didn’t do any worse than it has in the past. But, consider these numbers: inside Penn State’s 10-yard line, Michigan State ran five plays and gained 23 yards; inside Michigan State’s 10-yard line, Penn State ran 13 plays and gained 13 yards.
Why is that important? Because the stronger, steadier teams up front are the ones able to gain yards in that area where there’s no space to spread the field. You want to move the ball inside the 10? You better win individual matchups in the trenches. Penn State couldn’t do that. Not well enough, anyway, to keep up with a Michigan State offense that was dominating those battles consistently.
“We have to be able to fight through that,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. “We were able to score down there. But, we have to get better.”
Penn State had even more special teams issues Saturday.
It’s no secret Penn State had to avoid the special teams miscues it couldn’t the last two weeks if it wanted to beat Michigan State. And, it didn’t. Kick returner Koa Farmer fumbled on a return at his own 9, and Michigan State scored on the very next play.
Look, football is not a difficult game to understand. If you continually give the opponent chances, and you continually make mistakes that prevent you from scoring, and if those mistakes sometimes enable your opponent to score, you can’t win. Penn State showed that over and over again the last three weeks, which has to be frustrating for a team that had put some strong efforts together heading into November.
Now, it heads into the future, preparing for an opponent whose identity it won’t know for another week. It is preparing for a future that all the talented recruits Franklin can find might not be able to make seem brighter. Because excuses and reasons aside, what Penn State needed to show these last few weeks was not necessarily wins, but an indication it could play the type of solid, effective, no-nonsense game Michigan State did Saturday.
No matter how you slice it, Penn State is battered, bruised, shaken, and not even close to where it wants to be in that regard.