COLLINS: Penn State sluggish, imperfect vs. Rutgers, but still ahead of schedule in 2019

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State running back Journey Brown (4) celebrates a third quarter touchdown against Rutgers in an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
  • The Penn State football team struggled to a 27-6 victory over Rutgers on Saturday.
  • The Nittany Lions finished the regular season with a 10-2 record.
  • The Lions still have a chance to earn a New Year's Six bowl berth.

Penn State ended the regular season in fashion so apropos of the way it went about its business that it’s funny.

The Nittany Lions beat Rutgers by three touchdowns, 27-6, at Beaver Stadium. Their defense didn’t allow a touchdown. Their offense ran for 252 yards. They played without their starting quarterback and their stud defensive end and a starting cornerback and most of it without their other starting corner.

They needed Ohio State to whip Michigan to make their loss last week look even more impressive to the College Football Playoff committee, and Ohio State whipped Michigan.

They needed Wisconsin to blast Minnesota to enhance their New Year’s Six bowl hopes, and Wisconsin blasted Minnesota.

This was a great day for Penn State, and yet, it did little to quell the questions that have surrounded the perceived stagnation of the offense and the inefficiencies of the defense during the 2-2 November that followed an 8-0 start and a No. 4 CFP ranking that had the fan base bubbling with delusions of grandeur.

Penn State entered the game as 40-point favorites against the woeful Scarlet Knights, and Rutgers stayed within a 10-point window of the lead until the Lions made it look a lot more lopsided with two fourth-quarter touchdowns. For a fan base that wanted a dominant effort, with a major bowl bid hanging in the balance, there has been plenty of consternation over the fine line between what Penn State is and what it could be.

Penn State quarterback Will Levis (7) hurdles Rutgers defensive back Christian Izien (12) in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Expecting more: Bottom line: This was the No. 10 team in the nation facing one of the least-successful Power 5 teams in the nation, and Penn State fans expected more from their team.

“I get that,” head coach James Franklin said. “But I would also say that every single one of you guys can probably look up 25 games this year that people were supposed to do something and lost; then you could pick up another 25 games that people had a game against an opponent and it was tougher than it was supposed to be. That’s not just college football; that’s pro football, and high school football and at every single level.

“They played well tonight. We didn’t play as well as we could have.”

Penn State safety Garrett Taylor (17) tackles Rutgers running back Kay'Ron Adams (22) during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Uneven performances Ironic, isn’t it, that Penn State’s famous slogan is “We are.” Because even with the regular season firmly in the history books, it’s difficult to determine who the 2019 Nittany Lions are.

They’re a play or two going just a little bit differently against Minnesota away from legitimately being in the College Football Playoff right now. Think about that. As it is, we’re talking about a team that probably did enough Saturday — let’s face it, members of the CFP committee would have to be masochists to rewatch a 21-point win over Rutgers to determine if Penn State is worthy of a spot in the top 10 after they just watched the Ohio State game a week earlier — to earn a berth in either the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl.

They’re also what their most ardent detractors say about them. Uneven at best on offense, especially in the passing game. Suspect in the secondary against other team’s receivers; Rutgers quarterback Johnny Langan threw for 164 yards on 12 completions and actually missed a few open receivers Saturday. And, sometimes, a team caught assuming; they almost squandered big leads against Purdue and Michigan, and admittedly took the Scarlet Knights for granted.

“Obviously, we kind of underestimated this team,” running back Journey Brown said. “Which, we shouldn’t have. They’re a great team. They play hard. We should have played to our standards regardless.”

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons (11) tackles Rutgers running back Isaih Pacheco during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Still managed to win a lot: Penn State has done one thing really well all season: Win.

That’s a really great trait to have, to be the team that finds a way when others don’t. In Ohio State’s case, the Nittany Lions found a way to compete when nobody else could.

They were super opportunistic on both sides of the ball, if not absolutely relentless. Critics will say the best in the nation are the latter.

They were ultra-gifted, but inexperienced enough to be mistake-prone. They were tough, but subject to lulls. They were a team of the future who had chances to get where they wanted to go in the present and didn’t climb the mountain. Just as easy to understand the call for patience and understanding from the forward thinkers as it is to see the frustrations of the myopic.

“You want to play the best game you can possibly play,” senior linebacker Cam Brown said. “But it’s hard to win in college football. Fifty percent of the country went away with a loss today. We have to be appreciative we didn’t.

“I believe we got lax. I believe a lot of emotion was left in the (Ohio State) game.”

Looking ahead to 2020: You can understand that, or not. Accept it, or not. There’s no excuse for that, and there’s every excuse.

In the end, Penn State looked so-so and still got a pretty convincing final score. This team can be whatever its fans want it to be now: A beacon of hope, a disappointment or anywhere on the spectrum. Which is all fine for 2019, because most everyone thought 2020 would be the season these Nittany Lions could make a run at the whole shebang.

Then, these ups and downs will only be looked back on as the trials and tribulations a young team had to overcome to get where it wanted to go. You can pass them off as those now. But not then.