The story of why it took Penn State eight seasons to return to the Rose Bowl is obviously dominated by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the trail of staff turnover and NCAA sanctions it left in its wake.
What many people forget, though, is that the Nittany Lions also failed in the years leading into the scandal to build on the momentum generated by their 2008 Big Ten title. That started at the Rose Bowl against the same USC team they’ll face there Monday, and it would be in the program’s interests to learn from the mistakes of that recent — albeit mostly forgotten — history this time around.
The Nits’ prolific offense was shut down that New Year’s Day of 2009, falling behind 31-7 before scoring some garbage-time points to lose 38-24. On the other side of the ball, the Penn State defense struggled to put quarterback Mark Sanchez and the Trojans in any difficult down-and-distance situations, instead consistently conceding chunks of yards on first and second downs that made the few third downs USC faced manageable.
To be sure, the Trojans had a talent and size edge that day. This was before USC, then a recruiting powerhouse and perennial national championship contender, itself came under scrutiny from the NCAA and faced similar-if-less-severe sanctions than Penn State related to the Reggie Bush impermissible benefits scandal.
Still, it was hard to shake the feeling that the Nits failed to leverage their own strengths to the maximum, something that became the theme of the next few seasons. Offensively, the talented senior receiver trio of Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood and Deon Butler touched the ball just four times in the first half, leaving little room for all-time leading rusher Evan Royster to operate before he left the game with a sprained ankle. And defensively, the inability to adjust to Sanchez’s quick passes took Penn State’s vaunted front seven almost completely out of the game.
Coach James Franklin and his team must make sure they highlight their strengths this time at the Rose Bowl, one of the biggest stages in the sport.
That doesn’t mean winning, necessarily. Of course, that’s the goal and would be a huge momentum boost going into the offseason. But it’s far more important that Penn State make an affirmative statement about its identity.
Throw those deep passes that have been so lethal this season. Show how dangerous offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s zone-read run schemes can be. Put the linebackers and maturing defensive line in a position to generate the big plays they’ve made so consistently in the second half of the season. Make great adjustments for the second half.
Succeed in those facets, win or lose, and Penn State is a much easier sell not just to prospects in the 2017 and ‘18 recruiting classes but to the voters who will award the poll positions Penn State lacked in this season’s College Football Playoff race.
It also becomes a program rooted in the good habits it lacked entering the 2009 season.
That year, the offense became conservative in big games against eventual Big Ten co-champions Iowa and Ohio State, again failing to get the ball in the hands of playmakers, this time led by receivers Graham Zug and Derek Moye as well as tight end Andrew Quarless.
The spiral continued in 2010 and early 2011, when a two-year quarterback controversy between blue-chip recruit Rob Bolden and former walk-on Matt McGloin left the entire team at the mercy of coach Joe Paterno’s whims. By 2011, he sometimes alternated from drive to drive between the two signal-callers with very different skill sets, preventing their teammates from getting into a rhythm with one or the other.
This led to a 7-6 record in 2010 and an uninspiring 8-1 start in 2011 that seemed doomed to buckle against stiffer competition in the back-loaded schedule, even if Paterno hadn’t been swept out when the scandal bombshell landed in Happy Valley that November.
It’s hard to imagine a similar controversy roiling this offseason, with Trace McSorley leading a large group of returning starters and contributors. He would have to play himself out of the starting job, and at this point, it’s hard to envision that as long as Moorhead remains the coordinator.
But unforeseen obstacles to Penn State getting the most out of its talent can pop up anywhere. Just look at the suspension Wednesday of receiver Saeed Blacknall and linebacker Manny Bowen for the game Monday. These are the little things the program must keep from snowballing and sabotaging the momentum it’s built in the past year. It’s happened before, and it can happen again, no matter how bright the future looks right now.
That will be true in the Rose Bowl, and it will be true in every decision Penn State makes in trying to make this year’s Big Ten title the beginning of a successful story rather than the end of one.