What can we say about a season that went disappointingly off the rails and a bowl game that followed the same trajectory? Both started off better than expected before dashing all of our hopes.
We’ve got excuses, like we always do, to explain away our disappointment. Six key players opted out to declare for the NFL draft; others were injured. In total, eight Penn State players made their first starts or started in new positions. We lacked two starting linebackers, two starting defensive linemen and two starting defensive backs; the defense, with that kind of depth situation, just ran out of gas. We lost Brent Pry to Virginia Tech. We’re not sure what’s going on with Sean Clifford, who has appeared injured or at the very least not himself since the Iowa game, and who again left the game early per a decision by the medical staff. Let’s not even talk about the field goal fake play in which success apparently relied on Arkansas committing an error. Yikes.
Meanwhile, Will Levis had a banner season with the University of Kentucky, capped off with a Citrus Bowl victory over Iowa of all teams. And then had the swagger to tell the media it was getting benched against Iowa as a Penn State player that cemented his decision to transfer. Good for you, Will; we’re a bit salty but we wish you well.
Because really, none of that matters–not the missing players, not the what ifs of transfers. As Franklin said in this post-game conference: “Obviously we didn’t play well enough to win.” Yeah, obviously. That’s it in a nutshell.
Arkansas entered this game in a very different headspace. It was the first time in a decade that they’d had a nine win season. Penn State carried in half a season of baggage and a rankled fanbase. Their program’s confidence-building resurgence versus our program’s morale-busting incoherence; passion versus obligation.
The question we are left with still, again, unrelentingly, is why. Everything I’ve written since October has been an attempt to find the answers. The players are good enough, aren’t they? The coach (in my opinion though I suspect you’ll disagree) is good enough. What else is missing? I wrote earlier this season that perhaps we’d lost our mojo. Maybe it's synergy that’s scarce. Maybe we’ve lost our heart.
In every post-game press conference, James Franklin is publicly proud of his players. I respect the way he supports them, always. Franklin has been convincing so far that coaching Penn State is his dream job, but to watch Sam Pittman in his second season as the Razorbacks head coach is to believe it’s his dream job. Pittman exudes passion for his team, even though they do that weird pig yell thing. In 2022, I’d like to see more of that from James Franklin: not the pig yell, the passion. Maybe he’s gotten too bogged down in the criticism and he’s forgotten how to love the game.
Juice Scruggs said, “We want to finish the season strong and do it right, but we also want to get momentum for next year.” If we look really closely, deeper than the scoreboard and the stats, I believe we accomplished that. We lost with dignity despite every reason to have lost our cool. We previewed some positives for next year, namely redshirt sophomore defensive end Smith Vilbert who tied an Outback Bowl record with three sacks in his first career start. It's up to us to shake off this depressing end to a disappointing season. We can choose how we see it.
Good bye for now, Nittany Nation. Let’s hibernate a bit and come back refreshed in perspective and renewed in spirits. The heart of the matter is this: We Are Penn State and we’re never going to give up hope for next season.