Then vs. now on style points for Penn State
Something very interesting happened near the end of Saturday’s Penn State game against Indiana that serves as a reminder of just how times have changed and how different the Nittany Lion program is from what so many people grew up watching.
First, let’s go back to 1994, to the victory that many people believe cost PSU a national championship.
The Lions were in total control at Indiana, up 35-14 with 6:09 left, then saw the Hoosiers score two touchdowns in the closing minutes to make the final score look a lot closer, 35-29.
This is how the New York Times game story, written by Malcolm Moran, summed it up.
“When does a victory become a defeat? When does the preservation of a perfect season include the possibility that national championship chances have been jeopardized? When does the losing team celebrate at the end of a game, while the winners, whose lead was never in jeopardy, depart with grim faces?”
Moran is a highly respected sports journalist who served as head of the sports journalism department at Penn State from 2006-12. Ironically enough, he’s now head of the sports journalism department at Indiana.
Moran’s story in the Times that day also included these two paragraphs:
(Joe) Paterno, asked about the potential political consequences caused by the victory today, grimaced and shrugged.
“I don’t care about the polls,” he said. “What do I care about the polls?”
No, Paterno didn’t care about the polls. Or style points. That Indiana game was over, he knew it, everyone knew it.
But pollsters who only saw the final score didn’t know that it really was a rout that turned into a fluky final score. Some dropped Penn State in their votes, and sure enough, the Lions wound up missing out on a chance to play for a national title.
“I don’t think anybody knew at the time that outcome would have an impact on the national championship,” Moran told me by phone Sunday night.
I then asked him if he believes Paterno ever came to regret how that Indiana game ended up being so close.
“No,” Moran said. “I don’t think so. Because with less than two minutes to play, the game was over. The starters were on the sideline. The game had been decided.”
Why did the close score hurt Penn State so much in the polls?
“I think the biggest difference is the political standpoint,” Moran said. “Because when you look back to early November of ’94, that was year two (for PSU) as a competing Big Ten member, and there wasn’t the political base of support for a Penn State team that was dominating the Big Ten.
“There was still skepticism. Penn State was still looked at as the new guy. So you didn’t have that automatic political vote to offer votes for what was clearly the strongest team in the conference.”
Going back to Saturday, Penn State led Indiana 38-14 when it took over possession with 6:33 remaining. It seemed to be a perfect time to get backup quarterback Tommy Stevens some action, but no, Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and the starters were still out there.
The first play of the drive was a pass, and not just any pass, either. It was a 35-yard throw to DeAndre Thompkins to the Hoosiers’ 38-yard line.
That drive ended when Barkley took a toss from McSorley and threw a 16-yard TD pass to DaeSean Hamilton with 4:13 left for the final score of 45-14.
I’m not here to say that James Franklin was wrong for keeping his foot on the gas in that spot. Many coaches would have just run the ball and eaten up the clock.
Actually, the PSU offense hadn’t looked that great for much of the game, so hey, why not finish with a flurry and leave the stadium with a little more confidence?
Style points, baby.
Paterno never liked rubbing it in when his team was up, and truth be told, his conservative style often let far inferior teams hang around too long in games. Occasionally, it bit him with an upset loss.
Penn State didn’t lose to Indiana in 1994. But there’s no doubt the final score hurt the Lions.
If you compare the final six minutes of that game and the personnel PSU had on the field when the Hoosiers scored those meaningless points that turned out to be very meaningful, to what happened Saturday when the offensive starters were still on the field and throwing the ball, it’s certainly a stark contrast in coaching philosophies.
Nowadays we have the College Football Playoff, and the top four teams get selected based on thorough evaluation, as opposed to pollsters making their votes oftentimes without knowing very much of what happened in a game.
Still, style points can matter, be it for the playoff committee or other things.
Take, for instance, the fact that Barkley threw a TD pass on that late possession Saturday. That highlight could help him win the Heisman Trophy, and he wouldn’t have had it if the starters were on the sideline.
All these years later, one can’t help but wonder if the Lions and Paterno would have had their third national title if the starters had still been on the field late against Indiana in 1994.
Giger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.