STEVE HEISER COLUMN: Penn State fans would do well to remember words of Mark Twain

Steve Heiser
York Dispatch
  • Penn State will open its 2017 football season on Saturday against Akron at Beaver Stadium.
  • The Nittany Lions boast several returning offensive playmakers.
  • The Lions' defense, however, was overwhelmed in several games a season ago.

"There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics."

That phrase was popularized more than a century ago by Mark Twain.

More than 100 years later, it still rings true.

The return of quarterback Trace McSorley is one reason that Nittany Lions fans are optimistic this season.

Folks can manipulate numbers in any myriad of ways to support an argument that they favor.

Penn State football fans are no different.

For the York County members of Nittany Nation, who plan to make the traffic-clogged journey up Route 322 on Saturday morning, Sept. 2, for the Akron opener, here are some pleasant numbers to chew on during the painfully-long trip:

Two: The number of Heisman Trophy candidates in Penn State’s backfield in quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.

Six: The Lions’ preseason national ranking by both the media members in the Associated Press poll and the coaches in the USA Today poll.

20-1: The odds of Penn State winning the national championship, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Only six teams have better odds of claiming the national crown.

37.6: The number of points per game that the Lions averaged per game last season.

87: The number of career starts by PSU’s returning offensive linemen.

Those numbers are all well and good. They all point to a season that could produce a history-making offensive onslaught under mastermind offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

Trip from York County to Penn State will likely take longer than normal on Saturday

Unfortunately, not all the numbers are quite so favorable for PSU. In fact, a few numbers are downright worrisome — for instance:

Zero: The number of returning All-Big Ten first-team, second-team and third-team performers, as voted on by the media, returning to Penn State’s defense.

Three: The number of games when the PSU defense allowed at least 42 points last season.

21: Turnovers produced by PSU’s defense over 14 games last season, which was 53rd in the nation.

25.4: The number of points per game allowed by the Lions last season, which was 47th in the nation.

29: The number of points that PSU was outscored by during the first half of games last season. (It should be noted that PSU outscored its foes by a whopping 196 points during the second half of games).

So, what do the numbers objectively tell us?

With Moorhead making the calls, Penn State’s offense should be among the best in the nation. There are playmakers all over the field working behind a battle-tested offensive line.

The defense, however, is an entirely different story. It was average at best last season and there’s little reason to believe it has improved markedly. That unit’s weaknesses were exposed for the nation to see in the 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to Southern Cal.

The bottom line is pretty basic. Against quality opposition, Penn State’s offensive strengths will have to overcome its defensive weaknesses.

Luckily for PSU, barring major injuries, its offense should be good enough to do just that in most games.

When early December rolls around, look for the Lions to stand at 10-2 with losses at Ohio State and at Northwestern. A second straight appearance in the Big Ten title game is unlikely (the Buckeyes look destined to win the Big Ten East), but another major bowl seems probable.

At least that’s what the statistics seem to tell us.

Of course, we would all be wise to remember the words Mark Twain made famous.

Ultimately, the only numbers that will really matter will come under the columns marked “Wins” and “Losses,” and those are notoriously unpredictable.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at