SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Four points.
“Some of the guys on the team joke, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s your fault,’ to me and Ryan [Bates],” Penn State defensive end Ryan Buchholz told Land of 10 Thursday. “They’re just joking around and we didn’t [think] too much about it.
“It was really frustrating. After I went down and after Ryan went down, you did get that feeling that this just wasn’t right. And it kind of flipped.”
A game. An afternoon. A season. When you’re a penthouse team playing penthouse tilts, little moments can wind up being the difference between campaigns that are good and expected and seasons that become immortal.
In this case, the biggest of those little moments began piling up at Ohio State on Oct. 28. The 6-foot-6 Buchholz got knocked out of the game with an apparent leg injury on the first defensive play of the afternoon. Bates, then the starting left tackle, appeared to get his leg rolled in the third quarter. A 21-3 Penn State lead became 28-20; a 35-20 Nittany Lions cushion at the Horseshoe early in the fourth period somehow flipped into a 39-38 Buckeyes victory.
“After the first quarter, I was in the locker room, but there was no TV in there. So during the second quarter, all I could hear was cheering and booing and I had no idea what was going on,” Buchholz recalled Thursday during a media junket at the JW Marriott Scottsdale Camelback Inn to promote the 2017 Fiesta Bowl. “And once we got out there [on the sidelines], it was an all-different game… a whole whirlwind of emotions going back and forth.”
The next weekend, an exhausted — mentally and physically — Lions bunch never got the engine turned over at soggy Michigan State, falling 27-24 and kissing the mathematical hopes of defending their 2016 Big Ten title goodbye.
Four lousy points.
“Four points, it’s tough,” Buchholz said. “But it just shows how good of a team you are to lose two games by 4 points.”
Depending how the Rose Bowl East (the Cotton Bowl) between Ohio State and USC lands, the winner of the Rose Bowl West (the Fiesta) between Penn State and Washington on Saturday could stake a claim as the best squad left out of the four-team College Football Playoff party.
“That just shows how small it is, and how you don’t need to be a conference champion to get in. It’s mostly just losses.”
— Penn State defensive end Ryan Buchholz on the Lions being four points away from a berth in the College Football Playoff
Four blasted points.
“I knew that [the Buckeyes] weren’t going to get in,” Buchholz said. “They don’t like 2-loss teams. I think that was the biggest thing.”
As a general rule, they don’t like teams that lose by 31 in Iowa City, either.
“That’s also true,” Buchholz replied. “That was our problem last year — because we lost to Michigan by like 30-something [49-10]. I wasn’t too happy.
“It wasn’t karma or anything. I kind of knew how it would be. That’s what most analysts were saying.”
Four dang points.
“To me, personally, it does bother me sometimes,” Lions guard Steven Gonzalez noted. “But we’re in the Fiesta Bowl, we’re still in a New Year’s Six bowl. I can’t really complain. We’re in warmer weather, so I can’t really complain at all.
“Obviously, this was the team that was supposed to make a shot at the playoff, and things happen. You can’t change it.”
But that hasn’t stopped Penn State players from running the what-ifs in their heads, back and forth, like the Zapruder film. What if the Lions’ case to the CFP selection committee featured one league loss instead of two?
“I think it’s the same thing as last year with Ohio State,” said Buchholz, who’s got the green light to play Saturday against the Huskies.
“I guess you could say, if we would’ve beaten Michigan State this year, then it would’ve been the exact same circumstances. And if [the committee] would’ve put us in …”
“I don’t know. That just shows how small it is, and how you don’t need to be a conference champion to get in. It’s mostly just losses.”
Four bleeping points.