COLLINS: Penn State's 'bittersweet' regular season offers much reason for optimism

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Penn State finished its regular season with a 66-3 win over Maryland on Saturday.
  • The Nittany Lions completed a 10-2 regular season and should earn a New Year's Day bowl bid.
  • The Lions' two losses came by a combined total of four points.

In the end, Penn State did what Penn State does.

It battered Rutgers. It defended its home turf against Nebraska. It pummeled Maryland.

And, by pummeling Maryland, let’s just say it was a bit lopsided. The Nittany Lions piled up 534 yards. They won the first down battle, 28-11. They held the Terrapins to one — count ’em, one — successful third-down conversion in 15 attempts. They forced a pair of turnovers and scored touchdowns off both of them. They sacked overmatched Maryland sophomore quarterback Max Bortenschlager five times. They won, 66-3, and finished off the season like this:

Penn State quarterback Tommy Stevens, left, celebrates his touchdown with fellow quarterback Trace McSorley in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Maryland in College Park, Md., Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017.

►35-6 win over Rutgers

►42-10 halftime lead against Nebraska in a 56-44 victory

►66-3 throttling of the Terrapins

That’s a finish that netted Penn State a second consecutive 10-win season for just the third time in the Big Ten. That’s a finish that had head coach James Franklin beaming, mentioning at least five times in his postgame press conference how much he likes where the Nittany Lions are headed from here.

It’s also a 10-2 season that quarterback Trace McSorley, in a moment of uncontrolled honesty, called a bit “bittersweet.”

Fact of the matter is, they’re both right.

Team with flaws: This is a team with flaws that showed up. It was deeper, but not quite deep enough. It was talented, but not quite talented enough. It was prolific enough on the whole, but not quite good enough in the clutch, when the difference between a College Football Playoff berth and another near miss was decided.

Penn State will go to a great bowl game, but it won’t go where it wanted to go.

It won’t go where it could have gone, and that’s what McSorley meant.

Great season. Could have been greater.

But the idea that this is some kind of a lost season is cockamamie. Because, Franklin is right, too.

“I really believe this is just the beginning for us,” Franklin said. “I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. I really feel like we can just continue to get better. That’s every aspect of the program. That’s the players, that’s the coaches, that’s the trainers, that’s the doctors. And that’s everything. Because at this level, it’s very, very difficult. It’s very, very challenging.”

Improvement doesn't happen overnight: Programs playing big-time college football don’t go from the depths of mediocrity to the top of the heap in the snap of the finger, and sometimes, it seems like Penn State fans wonder why the Nittany Lions haven’t been able to do that.

It shouldn’t be that easy to forget that, after the 2009 season, this has really been a program that has struggled to build a consistent identity.

It made a run at a Big Ten title in 2011 before the scandal hit, but that was a team piecing it together with an aimless two-quarterback platoon that just happened to be good enough in a season when the Big Ten was at a low point competitively. Bill O’Brien’s 2012 and 2013 teams were considered amazing successes because of the circumstances surrounding the program. But, face it, they weren’t championship-level results.

Nor were the 2014 and 2015 seasons, after which fans complained Franklin was running a rudderless ship.

And, after September 2016, many wondered if Penn State was heading in the right football direction at all.

It was, as it turned out.

Expectations too big, too quickly: But the expectations got too big, too quickly, and College Football Playoff talk is typically reserved for polished programs. Penn State is deeper and more talented and prolific offensively. But it’s not polished. Not yet. And that showed.

It could have beaten Ohio State. Should have beaten Ohio State. And it lost to Ohio State, somehow. Great teams score when they have 15-point fourth quarter leads and the ball inside the 5.

It could have beaten Michigan State. Should have beaten Michigan State. And it lost to Michigan State, somehow. Franklin called that game “a mess” Saturday, and he’s dead on. That was a tough situation, with the excessive weather delay and the rain that persisted throughout the second half. But with a chance to make some clutch plays to put themselves in position to win — or at least avoid a loss — down the stretch, the Nittany Lions fell short. DeAndre Thompkins dropped a sure fourth-down conversion pass. Marcus Allen extended the Spartans’ game-winning drive with a killer roughing the passer penalty. Great teams win that game.

“It was more about getting back to fundamentals after that, getting back to who we are,” senior linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “At one point in the season, maybe we were trying to do too much. There were some injuries, and there were some young guys playing, and obviously, that’s a factor in doing too much. But it was getting back to our roots. We scaled things back and did what we do very well, instead of doing a lot of different things at an average level.”

Burying inferior foes down stretch: Great teams also do what Penn State did down the stretch, burying inferior opposition. But as much as Franklin is going to bristle at bringing up the past, a significant chunk of the 2017 Penn State football story was written there. It was written by players that didn’t make the biggest plays, and coaches who admittedly couldn’t keep the team’s focus on the next game; damn the bigger picture and the hype that came with it.

McSorley said those are mistakes that Penn State won’t make again, and he might be right. That’s part of the learning process, after all. But what should have been learned Saturday night in College Park is that Penn State is moving in the right direction, crawling slowly but surely up a steep hill, as Franklin put it. If the magical 2016 season showed that Penn State can be dominant again, the successes and near misses of 2017 are reminders that what they’re looking for doesn’t come with the wave of a wand.

It comes with patience. It comes with time. It comes after the mistakes.