Two primary points of consensus have emerged since Penn State’s 52-49 loss against Southern California on Monday in the Rose Bowl.
The first is that conservative fourth-quarter play-calling and quarterback Trace McSorley’s three interceptions are the primary reasons the Nittany Lions lost. The second is that Penn State still has a bright future with Big Ten and national championship potential as many starters return to give that unit an explosive, experienced core.
It’s a consensus that seems to be overlooking departing senior linebacker Brandon Bell, whose absence cost Penn State big in the Rose Bowl and should be making the conversation about the team’s 2017 prospects more of an open question.
Lost in the fury of the Nits’ furious 28-point third quarter Monday was a nice defensive start in the second half when it forced two punts and an interception to set up the scoring bonanza. It appeared the unit was well on its way to reinforcing the pattern of strong second-half performances that had characterized the latter portions of the Nits’ surge to a Big Ten title.
That interception proved costly, though. Bell, who made the tipped pick of USC quarterback Sam Darnold, had to be helped off the field with an injury and did not return. Penn State punched in another touchdown to go ahead 42-27 shortly thereafter, but that’s where the game began to turn.
With Bell out of the game, Darnold and the Trojans proceeded to pick apart Penn State’s pass defense because the Nits managed only token pressure. It was an implosion not unlike the ones Penn State experienced in losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan, when Bell’s absence — along with that of junior linebacker Jason Cabinda — was a big reason both the Panthers and Wolverines scored north of 40 points.
This trend, not McSorley’s uncharacteristically sloppy performance, is what should worry fans during the offseason.
Bell was, of course, a statistical force to be reckoned with. He led Penn State in tackles in huge wins against Ohio State and then Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. He had more sacks (four) than any Nits linebacker, and he finished second on the team in total tackles despite missing a substantial chunk of the season.
But his impact went beyond that. He often called out defenses once opposing offense got to the line of scrimmage and he corrected teammates moments before a snap, very often preventing breakdowns or setting up big defensive plays.
That steadying leadership combined with his production makes him difficult to replace, even if his contributions were overshadowed a bit by the offense’s heroics.
The good news is Penn State has more than a few players who have the potential to take on Bell’s mantle either individually or in the aggregate.
Cabinda will be a senior with loads of experience. Juniors-to-be Manny Bowen, Koa Farmer, along with soon-to-be sophomore Cam Brown, will get long looks after managing to get more playing time than expected when Penn State navigated injuries to Bell, Cabinda and Nyeem Wartman-White, who was lost for the season against Temple. And 2017 prospects Dylan Rivers, Brelin Faison-Walden and Brailyn Franklin could potentially make impacts.
It would be a mistake, though, to take for granted that anybody can step up in nearly the same way. Bowen, after all, let the team down by getting suspended for the Rose Bowl after violating team rules, while all but Cabinda will enter next season without anything approaching Bell’s seat time.
In short, coordinator Brent Pry has his work cut out for him regardless whether fans and media are ready to acknowledge that.
Sure, Penn State’s offense, which reeled off seven consecutive touchdowns at one point against USC, will certainly make Penn State unstoppable in some games – and dangerous in almost all of them.
At some point, though, a national contender has to be able to keep opponents from scoring 40- and 50-plus points. Penn State failed to do that when Bell had been missing in its three losses this season. PSU will need to play better defensively without Bell before anyone starts booking travel for a return trip to the Rose Bowl, which rotates back into a national semifinal role next season.