Neil Rudel on Penn State: The finish line, mercifully, should finally be near
With all the uncertainty that has surrounded this year, college football’s goal was really pretty simple: Just get the season in.
And for the Nittany Lions — by approximately 3:30 p.m. today — that season will be in after its noon start against Michigan State.
Or should be.
The entire Penn State athletic program deserves a ton of praise for the measures implemented to minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
In figures released this week, out of 1,269 tests, the athletic department had four positive cases. Four. And that was actually doubled over the previous week. Since testing began when student-athletes returned to campus over the summer, Penn State reported a total of 198 cases in 18,438 tests.
That comes out to .01%, or about the success rate of the Nits’ fade pattern.
So kudos on keeping the athletes safe and also being able to play the season.
Other teams haven’t been nearly as fortunate. Ohio State needed a Big Ten exemption to play in the conference championship game next week after the Buckeyes’ third game was canceled due to the virus. League rules stipulated a minimum of six games played to be eligible for the Big Ten title, and the Buckeyes have played five.
What happens next for Penn State remains up in the air. The Big Ten had wanted to stage a championship week that would allow each of its teams, and not just the East and West division winners, a ninth game.
It didn’t make a lot of sense when it was announced in October as an extension of the regular season, and it makes even less sense today.
Penn State, Iowa and Rutgers were the only teams that managed to play all eight scheduled games.
Michigan’s last two games have been canceled, and Indiana-Purdue was scratched for today as well. Wisconsin and Maryland both lost three games.
As of Friday, the Big Ten still hadn’t said what it intends to do about its “championship week.”
What it should do is mercifully scrap the idea and just let the title game — Ohio State vs. Northwestern — speak for itself.
There’s really no reason to keep the players around any longer, on student-less campuses, and the idea of sending teams around the country to empty bowl venues makes even less sense.
Penn State is 2-5 with two wins in a row, but all teams are eligible for bowls this year because of the pandemic. Even so, the incentive for a team that began the year with visions of the College Football Playoff has its limits.
James Franklin talked this week about eventually getting the players reunited with their families and returning Jan. 19 for the start of the spring semester.
“I want us to play well (vs. Michigan State), but there’s also going to be a point where we get to the end of the season for the players and staff to get to their families in a safe way and have them have an offseason and get back to normalcy,” he said.
Since March, Franklin has been without his wife and daughters because his youngest daughter has sickle cell and, in the interest of her health, the decision was made to stay in the family’s Florida home.
“I can’t tell you what I would do for a hug from my wife and daughters,” Franklin said.
Franklin saw Boston College announced Thursday night that it would be sitting out the bowl season, and mentioned other teams, presumably including his, face the same dilemma.
Credit to BC coach Jeff Hafley, who said:
“For them to stay healthy and stay away from COVID, it took more out of them than anybody has any idea. They’re worn out. As we look now with other teams continuing to battle COVID, it’s getting worse, and for us to go through three weeks of practice, continue to stay healthy, continue to stay away from our families and then not know is the bowl game really going to happen? Are we going to miss Christmas with our families and then be told on the 25th that we’re really not going to play?
“We decided the biggest reward we could give these players was to be able to go and let them finish finals and go spend time with their families. They’ve earned it, and they deserve it.”
And that’s where it should be for Penn State.
Never mind that a win today would be three straight and maybe if the Big Ten gets around to matching up its “championship week,” there could be a fourth win in a row — over Illinois or Purdue — and then even a speculated date with an ACC team in some Dec. 30 bowl game.
But given the state of the country and especially around here — where the governor has flagged hall passes for those seeking a pizza and a soda or beer at their favorite place — it’s time to call it a season.
Yes, there were disappointments in the 0-5 start, and the lack of organization and at times effort that led to it, but the team righted itself, had a couple moments and at least is going to finish.
“There’s been some cracks that have been exposed through this pandemic, but there’s also been tremendous resiliency,” Franklin said. “And I know this sounds strange, but I’m also proud of that. I’m proud of how we have battled a lot of adversity and a lot of challenges.”
In 2020, that has to be good enough.
Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.