COLLINS: Is it in Penn State's best interests to keep playing football this season?

DONNIE COLLINS
The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin leads his team onto the field for an NCAA college football game against Michigan State in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

James Franklin said something at his weekly press conference last Tuesday that should make one think about what's important here.

He talked about people making a lot of sacrifices. He mentioned Dr. Wayne Sebastianelli, the Jessup native and director of athletic medicine for Penn State's football program, and he mentioned other doctors and other trainers, and the jobs they've done to keep Penn State healthy while playing a football season through a pandemic. He mentioned the sacrifices players made — some said they haven't seen family and close friends in months, others talked about fears of merely walking into the corner store and accidentally getting too close to an unknowingly infected shopper. He mentioned assistant coaches changing routines to make do in a crazy world.

He mentioned his own family, his wife and daughters living in Florida because it's closer to a hospital that can deal with his daughter Addison's sickle cell anemia, which makes her especially at-risk with COVID-19. They haven't been in State College since March. He hasn't seen them since long before the season started.

"I will tell you this: I can't tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters," Franklin said. "Like, I can't ... I can't express to you."

That should get you thinking.

Heck of an accomplishment: What Penn State did Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium was a heck of an accomplishment. Not that they came back from 11 points down at halftime to beat Michigan State, 39-24. Not that they won their third straight game after an 0-5 start. Not that they still have a shot at a .500 finish.

That they finished this season out, at all. In good health. With no interruptions.

Considering where Penn State sat just three weeks ago, here's guessing Franklin and his senior leaders and the true freshmen who played big when they were unexpectedly needed most. And, while Franklin said Saturday that the next step for his program will be waiting to see where they'll play next week, here's wondering if the answer to that question should be nowhere.

For the record, it doesn't sound like Penn State wants it that way. All signs point to Penn State actually following through and taking on a struggling Illinois team at Beaver Stadium on Saturday evening. The game became official on Sunday.

This is a PSU team on a role, and Franklin said after Saturday's game that the Nittany Lions will start preparing for the Champions Week game as soon as they find out who they're playing. Now they know. It's the Illini.

Would .500 prove anything? That sure gives Penn State a good opportunity, coupled with a potential bowl bid, to get back to .500. That's no small feat after an 0-5 start.

But, what does it prove?

Is 3-5 all that much different from 5-5? Especially in a season like this, where simply being able to practice takes a monumental fight against an insidious virus?

Is Penn State going to get a better win than it has against Michigan on the road? Is it going to get a more emotional one than it got during Senior Day on Saturday, when it played inarguably its strongest half of the season, scoring three touchdowns in a span of 3 minutes, 38 seconds to put away a Michigan State team that looked like it was headed toward its own strong finish?

These are questions Penn State should ask itself in the coming days, given that the Big Ten's best-laid plans for Champions Week already have gone somewhat awry following COVID outbreaks at several institutions.

Players are saying the right thing: Players are going to say the right things, of course, and they've sure been asked if they really would want to play another Big Ten game, or even a bowl game.

None has said he wouldn't.

"You only get so many opportunities to suit up in the blue and white," said receiver Jahan Dotson, who caught 108 yards worth of passes Saturday and sealed the win with a slick 81-yard punt return for a score. "Any time I get a chance to play for those guys in the locker room, I'm going to do it. Absolutely."

But this isn't a matter of wanting to. It's a matter of too much being too much, and this is a group of youngsters who have played badly at times, and rallied. This is already a group that has been through so much to do that.

Michigan State win would be good way to end season: Besides, Saturday's win sure felt like a good way for this team to march toward a more-hopeful 2021.

The gritty comeback was more indicative of the way this team turned this thing around than the dominant effort they still seek. Seniors like Shane Simmons, Jaquan Brisker, Shaka Toney and Michal Menet having strong games certainly was fitting on what could be their last day in the blue and white at Beaver Stadium.

There are some good feelings with this program now. They're inflated a bit, for sure, by beating a Michigan team that didn't have any punch, a Rutgers squad that struggled in the elements and a Michigan State team that had so many issues of its own this season. But it has to beat heading to the offseason down in the dumps. After all, three weeks ago, everyone was wondering if this team might go winless.

Absorbing memories: Senior safety Lamont Wade said his final moments on the sideline Saturday were spent soaking in those last seconds with a group that never gave up, trying to absorb those memories in with all the others he made in more successful times at Penn State.

"It has been a tough season," Toney said. "This hasn't been our standard. It hasn't been anybody's standard among Penn Staters that bleed this blue. It's not what we expected, but I think people should be proud of the way this team finished."

Maybe, all things being equal, this team can't do more than it has done already. Maybe, it's time to send Sean Clifford to his family and Toney to his friends and Franklin home for that hug from his wife and kids.

Riding a win streak is important. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it's that there are more important things.