Ugly wins could be virtue for Penn State

Winning ugly is still winning, and what we saw from Penn State in Saturday’s four-turnover, 23-17 victory over Syracuse was, in a lot of ways, ugly.

Fear not, though, because the Nittany Lions are going to win a lot of ugly games by close margins over the next few years. And it won’t matter one lick because they will still count as wins, just like Saturday.

So consider the Syracuse game foreshadowing.

The scholarship reductions and depth issues have and will continue to limit what Penn State can do against good, mediocre and bad teams. The good teams might beat the Nittany Lions a little worse than before. The mediocre teams will give them a little more trouble than before. And the bad teams might even be able to keep games closer longer.

But as Penn State showed Saturday, it should continue to have enough good players who can make big plays – plus it has Bill O’Brien’s offensive mind – to beat the likes of a Syracuse. Or to beat most other non-conference opponents we’ll see on the schedule, plus a number of Big Ten also-rans and never-weres.

That should add up to at least seven wins a year, even with only 65 scholarships from 2014-17.

Syracuse is predicted by many to win six games this year. Pitt might win that many, too.

Think about that: Penn State, having gone through the worst scandal in sports history, is projected by most to win eight games, more than many other established, occasionally successful programs.

How is that possible? (And what must fans at those other schools think of their programs, which don’t have anywhere near the adversity PSU is facing?)

We saw how Saturday.

The O’Brien factor is a given. Everyone knows what he can do by now, and he will only get better with actual game coaching the longer he does it.

The more important aspect is that the Lions still have a lot of talent, and should continue to have more top-tier talent even with 65 scholarships than two-thirds of the teams they face every year. The exceptions, obviously, being traditional powers Ohio State and Michigan, plus maybe – maybe – Nebraska and Wisconsin.

The two factors that will work against Penn State at times this season and beyond are inevitable injuries to key players and inconsistent play of the many young guys O’Brien has to rely on. They will look great at times, and at other times they will show their inexperience and make costly mistakes.

That leads to ugly football, like we saw a good bit of Saturday as Penn State threw two interceptions, lost two fumbles and was largely ineffective running the ball.

Then we see a thing of beauty, like a 54-yard TD bomb from Christian Hackenberg to Geno Lewis, and you quickly realize how good the young players can be when given a chance. And how much better they’re only going to get.

Penn State might not be great again for a number of years, but as the Syracuse game proved, you don’t have to be great to beat a lot of teams in college football.