EAST LANSING, MICH — Penn State football has come up short before and it will come up short again. Because sports are really just about delaying the inevitable. Everyone eventually makes their way down the tunnel in defeat, it's all about pushing that away for one more week.
But what will leave the biggest bruise on Penn State football's eventual autopsy of the 2017 is how close it was.
The Nittany Lions have in their possession one of the best players in the history of the program who has spent the year on the cusp of Heisman hopes. They have a host of talent around him. A tight end that is also one of the program's best, and receivers who have risen to the occasion.
Special teams have been a strength, the defense is littered with experience and talent.
It's unfair to pin Penn State's shortcomings on any single issue. At the risk of cliche, football is a team sport and all three phases have played a role in Penn State's losses this season. Even so, imagine a Penn State team with a much more functional offensive line. Imagine a world where Barkley is averaging five or six yards a carry. Instead of running into a wall of defenders in the backfield, dealing with linebackers and safeties on the second level.
That Penn State team is giving the national title a run for its money. That Penn State team is probably still undefeated.
But as became readily apparent on Saturday afternoon nearly seven hours after the game began, the Nittany Lions do not have that team on their hands. They have a team just a bit flat of that potential.
The question now is how that changes.
By any reasonable estimation Penn State has three major issues on its hands in the coming 12 to 24 months. The known and assumed departures of Mike Gesicki/Saquon Barkley, the nebulous trajectory of the offensive line, and the evolution of the offense to compensate for both prior concerns.
Because really this season will play out however it does and with minimal national relevance. At this point Penn State is playing for pride, a nice bowl and the not so unimportant fact that this team is far better than many of its predecessors. The Nittany Lions should win their final three regular season games and 10-win regular seasons shouldn't be disregarded.
Although if you were to ask former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, he would tell you that they can also be your undoing. Once you reach that rarefied air it becomes more and more about those two losses. The hairs are split and split again, the changes and mistakes magnified all the more. Those games decide seasons and they decide jobs. Even if Penn State is not far removed from sanctions and a far less certain future, those days and those realities are behind it.
The issue that James Franklin and his staff face now is making strides towards those final two games. Penn State has talent in the pipeline, and on any given day the Nittany Lions ought to be able to beat the majority of the Big Ten because of it.
The fundamental problem moving forward though, the teams equipped to stop Penn State appear to be prepared to do just that. The Nittany Lions get their points, but the surprises and schemes that blew fans and opponents away in 2016 are doing less and less of both.
"I think that it's something, that last year a lot of teams didn't necessarily know how to play us," quarterback Trace McSorley said after the game. "Maybe they'd try and stop the run or stop the pass and as teams play games you get more film on them. So you can go back to last year and see what happened and then try and build from that. I think that's something that as you get more tape on a team, obviously you'll be able to game plan them better. Our coaches put together a good game plan for us each week and it's up to us players to execute it."
It shows. Penn State simply cannot run the football, and it has handicapped its best and likely soon departed player to something of a talented decoy in the process. The Nittany Lions are trying to beat some of the nation's best teams on the back of an RPO offense that can only do half of the equation properly. The eventual result is what happened Saturday, McSorley throwing for 381 yards on a career-high 47 passes. With one leg cut off and a gallon of water falling from the sky every minute, Penn State was asking to lose.
But imagine a world where Penn State could run the ball...
"I think that offensive football at the end of the day is about execution," McSorley added. "Our styles are different but they're designed to do the same thing. To attack the defense's weaknesses and try and exploit those. That's where it comes down to execution, that's where it comes down to the players."
All of this brings the program to perhaps an unfairly boiled down, but binary reality. Either the offensive line is bad, or the scheme is maxing out its ability to mask that fact. It seems worth noting that for all of the flash and excitement Penn State can bring to the table that nearly every team that has the horses to slow Penn State down has been able to. And that for all of the success Penn State has had under Moorhead, an RPO offense is largely the exception in the sport. There might be a reason why it has not been the long term and sustainable offense.
Even in Penn State's biggest win of the year, Michigan's defense would have slowed down the Nittany Lions but it refused to play that style of football. In turn the Penn State was happy to take advantage of it.
Right now though the Wolverines are a rarity, and while Joe Moorhead's scheme is certainly not conceptually wrong, based on principles that are easily defended, the ultimate output against the best teams fighting for the highest stakes, the results so far speak for themselves. If nothing else, the state of the offensive line and the ability of the offense to mask it are no longer congruent.
And in the big picture, Penn State grinding out 10-win seasons would be far from the worst thing for fans, but until something changes be it the line or the scheme around it, it might be a coin-toss against the B1G boys.