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COLLINS: Drubbing is what young Penn State team needed

DONNIE COLLINS
Scranton Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Penn State got drubbed by Michigan on Saturday, 49-10.
  • The Wolverines outgained the Nittany Lions, 515-199.
  • Penn State started just three seniors on Saturday.

Trace McSorley sat down, put a bag at his side, slumped his shoulders and did the only think he could think to do.

He apologized.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley walks off the field after Saturday's 49-10 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor.

He looked down, spoke softly, and said he wanted to deliver a message to Penn State fans. What happened at Michigan Stadium on Saturday is not where he wants this program to be. It’s not how he wants to play. It’s not how his teammates want to be perceived — as a doormat for a big, strong, experienced, talented, tough Big Ten team. He said he felt “numb.” He said fans deserved better.

“It’s embarrassing,” the Nittany Lions’ sophomore quarterback said.

Players are always the last to see the reality, even in a place like Happy Valley, where a program can be floored by scandal, kicked in the gut while it was down by sanctions and crippled by scholarship reductions, and some fans wonder why it isn’t sprinting to the end zone just as it’s getting back on its feet.

But the reality is this: Penn State is not playing the type of football that would put it in the same stratosphere as programs like Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.

Nor is it capable of doing so.

PSU never stood a chance: Penn State never stood a chance at the Big House on Saturday, It lost, 49-10. It got outgained, 515 yards to 199. It got dominated in the trenches on both sides of the ball. It got run over, around and through on defense. It looked meek on offense. A beat-up linebacking corps relying on walk-ons anyway somehow lost two more players — one to ejection, one to injury — which pretty much ended any chance they had to be competitive against a an expertly designed Michigan offense that takes advantage of an opponent’s every flaw.

But with all due respect to McSorley, and to those delusional Nittany Lions fans who will accept his words of regret and try to move on, an apology is just bluster. Reality is what needs to be accepted here, and the reality is this isn’t far away from what most everyone who looked at this game with a grain of impartiality predicted would happen.

How can someone feel the need to apologize for something, be embarrassed by something, that they had no chance to stop?

“That’s a good football team. That’s a mature football team, one of the oldest football teams in the country and one of the most mature football teams in the country,” head coach James Franklin said. “They’re (ranked) No. 4 in the country for a reason.”

Yes. And Penn State is probably closer to 54.

Some are more than willing to point the finger at Franklin and the coaching staff for the Nittany Lions’ struggles against the Big Ten elite, which, to be fair, is inherently ridiculous. In their last three games against the top teams in the Big Ten — Ohio State, Michigan State and the Wolverines — Penn State has been outscored, 142-36, and outgained, 1,380 yards to 932. It’s easy, and oh-so-self gratifying, for fans to blame coaches for that.

But, man, does it ever point to an extreme divide in usable talent.

Lions lacking experience: Franklin has earned the reputation for being a bit of an excuse-maker with some fans, but again, reality can be pesky. When he comes into a press conference talking about Michigan being an experienced team and Penn State being one of the youngest in the nation, it’s a blunt truth.

Michigan got big contributions Saturday from 22 players with senior eligibility, from star cornerback Jourdan Lewis to kicker Kenneth Allen, from three-fifths of its starting offensive line and three-fourths of its starting defensive line and its entire receiving corps.

Know how many seniors started for Penn State on Saturday? Three. And two — center Brian Gaia and right guard Derek Dowrey — were along an offensive line that is trending young anyway.

You don’t get better as a young team if you don’t get your rear ends kicked by teams that are great, older teams. Know who is a good example of that? Michigan, which was a young, talented team that wasn’t good enough to beat experienced teams and, frankly, wasn’t having the success Penn State is currently having as it struggles to get to that level.

“Any time you face a team that is experienced, it makes your team better,” sophomore defensive tackle Antoine White said. “I definitely think playing a team that has experienced-caliber players, it helps your offense and defense and your entire team.”

Asked to evaluate what he saw from Michigan that he had never seen before in a collegiate game, sophomore linebacker Koa Farmer didn’t have to think long to come up with answers.

The Wolverines were more physical than he had been used to, he said. They forced defenders to focus better on their keys. They showed what an offense looks like. A lot of things, he said, that a lot of Penn State’s younger players don’t get a chance to see on a regular basis

“Young guys got in the game. Everyone got in the game. Everyone got reps,” Farmer said. “I think we can learn from that, learn from our mistakes.”

Franklin has brought some big-time talent to Penn State. But talent is far from enough when you’re staring down the best in the Big Ten.

You need experience, too.

Getting absolutely drubbed by Michigan is not what Penn State wanted. But the hard reality is, it’s what the program needed.

Talent, after all, has to understand that talent isn’t enough.