COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Penn State’s regular season closed Saturday with a 66-3 embarrassment of Maryland (see observations).
The Nittany Lions are 10-2, with a high-profile bowl game ahead. They have outscored their last three opponents, 157-53, and all 12 by a whopping 499-186 margin.
Yet none of that can obscure a certain sense of unfulfillment — that a play here or a play there in the losses to Ohio State (by one) and Michigan State (by three), and their season would look very different.
“That’s the tough thing,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “It’s 10-2, but it’s almost a bittersweet 10-2 because you know it could have been better and we wish it had been. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get it done in a couple games this year.”
He went on to say he and his teammates are happy with 10-2. Really, they are. It comes on the heels of last year’s 11-3 finish, and coach James Franklin was quick to remind reporters that on only two other occasions have the Lions enjoyed back-to-back double-digit victory seasons since joining the Big Ten in 1993.
He also refused to ponder what might have been. Maybe that was posturing. Maybe that was genuine. Maybe it helps him sleep at night.
Whatever the case, that’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.
“I’m excited about being 1-0 tonight, and I’m excited about 10 wins,” he said. “I’m going to focus on the positive, not the woulda/coulda/shouldas. Because we can’t affect them, right?”
Fair enough. But that will not stop the folks in the stands or the press box from playing the what-if game. From wondering what might have happened if a fourth-quarter punt had not been blocked at Ohio State, or if there had not been a three-and-a-half-hour lightning delay at Michigan State.
Franklin acknowledged the latter game was “a mess,” but emphasized that that was no excuse.
“We didn’t play well enough,” he said. “It was a perfect storm of issues.”
That was true right up to the point that safety Marcus Allen drew a roughing-the-passer penalty, allowing the Spartans to move into position for the decisive field goal at the gun.
Speaking of what-ifs.
Another played out Saturday. Tommy Stevens, McSorley’s backup and a guy often employed in the so-called “slash” role this season — i.e., quarterback-slash-running back-slash-receiver — ran for the day’s first touchdown when he was inserted in the backfield with McSorley and star running back Saquon Barkley.
Stevens also threw a pass and caught one in the first half, then replaced McSorley for good late in the third quarter. In all, he ran 12 times for 113 yards and three scores, went 3 of 7 for 11 yards and another TD and had that lone reception.
Stevens now has rushed for four scores, passed for three and caught passes resulting in two this season. Yet he didn’t play in either loss (as well as three other games), a what-if unto itself: Couldn’t he, perhaps, have tipped the balance in PSU’s favor?
Asked if he might have been chomping at the bit when the Lions faced the Buckeyes or Spartans, Stevens took the diplomatic route.
“It’s in the past,” he said. “I’ve gotten past that.”
Franklin said the Lions typically have a “high red zone package” for Stevens, and that offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead inserts him as he sees fit — that it depends on down and distance, flow of the game, etc.
“We’ve got a pretty good quarterback in Trace McSorley,” Franklin said. “We’ve got a damn good quarterback in our backup quarterback, in Tommy Stevens. But you have to be careful. Sometimes when you get in a two-quarterback system it can mess up the flow. I think we’ve handled it pretty well this year, and I could see this package continuing to grow for us.”
The team’s growth continues as well.
“I like where we’re at, but I still think we’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “I still think we can get better. That’s still the exciting part of all of this.”
They will need to get better, given the fast company they keep in the Big Ten East. Also given the personnel losses ahead. Foundational players like Allen, linebacker Jason Cabinda and tight end Mike Gesicki will be gone next year. Barkley probably will be, too.
“So,” Franklin said, “we’ve just got to continue scraping and clawing and scratching for every little inch that we can find because to get where we want to go, it’s still going to be a slow, steady crawl. And I’d make the argument that it’s going to be harder, these next steps, than what we’ve already done. Should be an interesting ride.”
It’s the only what-if he would allow himself — the one about what might lie ahead.
The rest of us, meanwhile, can afford to take a backward glance.