Penn State’s season more about playing, less about results

Penn State head coach James Franklin greets his team as they take the field for an NCAA college football game against Illinois in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

One of the oldest sayings in sports goes like this: It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.

In the case of the 2020 Penn State football team, the final part of that saying could be changed to “that you played the game.”

The record book will say 4-5 — the Nittany Lions’ first losing season since 2004 — and while there will be plenty of time to assess what was displayed between the lines, history will smile on this team’s squad.

For merely sticking together through the global pandemic, getting off the mat from an 0-5 start, winning the last four games and, perhaps most importantly, providing some welcome diversion — win or lose — from this awful time.

The exclamation point came Saturday at Beaver Stadium in a 56-21 win over Illinois, a game in which the Lions scored the final 42 points.

“I think it says a lot about our chemistry and our brotherhood,” said safety Lamont Wade, whose 100-yard kickoff return gave the Lions a 14-7 lead. “You see other teams and guys opting out. We fought through it, and that’s the lesson of this year.”

Shortly after Wade spoke, it was announced that the team was declining a bowl invitation, which presumably would have come Saturday night or Sunday.

No one can blame them.

The Lions completed what was required and did so while feeling good, and not in Phoenix or Charlotte in an empty stadium hundreds of miles away from their homes they haven’t visited in months, and awat from beloved families from which they’ve been forced to maintain social distance.

Indeed, for the Nittany Lions, even with a chance to finish .500, it wasn’t going to get any better than it was Saturday, so they rewarded themselves with a month off.

The entire program made extraordinary sacrifices to sequester itself from the coronavirus and, to its credit, Penn State joined Northwestern as the only Big Ten teams to play the entire schedule without a cancellation.

Not that it was any other schools’ fault that lost games, but certainly the Lions’ diligence and attention to detail spoke well of their approach.

James Franklin has repeatedly praised the players and support staff for their efforts to accommodate the season without interruption, something most schools in the Big Ten and around the country could not claim.

But when asked a couple of weeks ago whether all the sacrifices have been worth it, Franklin’s extended pause before answering was telling.

“Right now, in the heat of it all,” he said, “it’s hard to answer that.”

Most coaches, especially successful ones, have longer careers than the players, and while Franklin may not be sure this season was worth it — or maybe he is — the players, to a man, have no regrets.

“We had a lot of guys able to show what they can could do so it was definitely worth it,” said star receiver Jahan Dotson, whose 189 yards receiving and two touchdowns torched the Illini. “Oh-and-five taught us a lot. And losing is not our standard. We got back to winning.”

Dotson did his share with a breakout year and excellent leadership. We’ll find out in the coming days whether he’s played his final game at Penn State. Certainly, his NFL stock couldn’t be higher.

He could be the biggest void to fill, but Saturday showed there are plenty of skill players — Keyvone Lee, Caziah Holmes, Parker Washington, Brenton Strange, etc. — capable of expanded roles.

Franklin’s first priority will be getting his family back to State College safely to protect his daughter Addison, who has sickle cell. It was an ongoing topic throughout the season, and Franklin admitted early “I have not done a great job of managing my family being gone.”

So that has to change. Franklin mentioned Saturday night he’s working on “how I’m going to be able to try and get my family back here” and has received support from athletic director Sandy Barbour.

“The administration, Sandy has been really good — (on helping) how I’m going to get to see them and how we can support my family in this region, based on her sickle cell,” Franklin said.

So the coach has adversity to overcome, but if he needs a few role models on how to handle it, he doesn’t need to look far.

His 2020 football team showed him the way, not necessarily in how it played every game, but at least that it did.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.


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