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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions With A Long Way To Go, But That's Not Always Bad

on October 20, 2019 1:20 AM

If there is anything to take from Penn State's 28-21 victory over Michigan it's that the Nittany Lions have a long way to go in more ways than one.

The first and most daunting reality: There are [only] 35 days between now and Penn State's meeting with Ohio State.

But for Penn State this also comes with a positive light, that the passage of time is an opportunity for growth and development. Penn State is not the team it was six weeks ago, and it is unlikely to be the same a month from now.

Thirty-five days is a long time in football. It's a trip to Michigan State, a bye week, a trip to Minneapolis and a return home to face Indiana. It's wins, experience and growth.

It's time to sharpen offensive technique and defensive details. It's a chance to grow both individual and team-wide confidence. By the time Columbus rolls around there will no longer be freshmen and sophomores on the field, simply freshmen and sophomores on paper.

Of course 35 days is also enough time to see a season turn a different corner. In 2017 it took just seven days for the Nittany Lions to go from national title hopefuls to the polite warmth of a New Year's Six bowl game. Penn State will travel to face a Michigan State team coming off a bye week and not long removed from the memories of upsetting Penn State on a soggy field. The Nittany Lions' woes against the Spartans are as well documented as those against the Wolverines.

It will also face a Minnesota team that could very well be undefeated, playing in an unfamiliar city against a team it has not seen since 2016 and a coaching staff it has never faced.

It will also mean beating Indiana, a program that is never as bad as its record and never short on a feisty-upset minded hopes. If Illinois' upending of Wisconsin on Saturday was a reminder of anything, it's that winning is never as simple as it looks on the schedule.

35 days is a lot of time for a lot of things to happen.

"Better at rugby punts," punter Blake Gillikin said after the game when asked what he wants to be better at in a month. "And a better leader."

"Better at tackling, and closing out games as a unit," safety Garrett Taylor added.

"I'm still figuring out what kind of quarterback I want to be," Sean Clifford said.

For James Franklin and his staff 35 days is good news more than it is bad. Penn State came out firing against Michigan only to watch its offense falter against a stingy Wolverine defense. Clifford was effective but Penn State lacked the forward momentum to put the game out of reach given the opportunity to do so [three of five second half drives were three-and-out]. The team's early swagger was replaced by a tentative reality, especially as the clock rolled along. The absence of running back Noah Cain was a head-scratching twist, especially as Franklin [essentially] explained it as how the game played out.

All told by the time the fourth quarter began it was a familiar scene. Penn State was stalling out with the ball with the Nittany Lion defense paying the price with tired and overworked legs. As the game ended Penn State's defense had faced nearly 30 more plays than its Michigan counterpart and had been on the field for more than nine minutes of each quarter.

It wasn't that Penn State losing felt inevitable, but Saturday's game was the calling card of every Penn State loss over the past three years. This was a story some 110,669 fans had seen before and were not interested in seeing again.

Be it luck, execution or a bit of both, Penn State won and in the end the marathon of college football is littered with teams that failed that simple objective. For Penn State it is a seventh win and a second win over a ranked opponent this year. The Nittany Lions have kept their hopes alive for another day in a sport where they are so often swallowed up by the unexpected.

In the eyes of Franklin a win will bring with it mixed emotions. Undeniably the win was a hard fought result against a team he has beaten just once in the previous five attempts. It's a win against a big-hitter in the Big Ten East and a win that furthers the program's growing ability to claim a national relevance spanning vastly different rosters. These things are all ultimately positives.

It will also remind him of what he already knows to be true: Penn State is very good, but has a long way to go. A cliche but bedrock 1-0 mentality may find him focused on Michigan State, Minnesota and Indiana but he knows that Penn State should be favored in each game, and he knows that all things being equal his team should win each of them.

If anyone can actually beat the Buckeyes is a very different question, but Penn State has 35 days to get ready. A long way to go on the calendar and a long way to go on the field. In a sense it's unfair that so much of the perception of Penn State's season will come down to the result of a game it might be destined to lose. And yet in a way that is a compliment, that the program is defined by how it plays against the best, not its ability to crush the rest.

"There is always beauty in the struggle," linebacker Micah Parsons said.

And that struggle improved to 7-0.

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October 19, 2019 11:29 PM
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