Penn State Football

Down but not out: Dejected Nittany Lions say season is not over

This is how James Franklin, Saquon Barkley and other Penn State players feel after tough loss to Ohio State

Head coach James Franklin said Penn State “didn’t finish” Ohio State in Saturday’s 39-38 loss. Running back Saquon Barkley emphasized that the Nittany Lions' season is not over. Quarterback Trace McSorley described the mood in the locker room. Saf
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Head coach James Franklin said Penn State “didn’t finish” Ohio State in Saturday’s 39-38 loss. Running back Saquon Barkley emphasized that the Nittany Lions' season is not over. Quarterback Trace McSorley described the mood in the locker room. Saf

One by one, the Nittany Lions shuffled into the Ohio Stadium visiting media room with traumatized faces. Some, like normally wide-smiled safety Marcus Allen or honest defensive end Shareef Miller, kept their words brief and volume even lower.

The last time Penn State felt this gut-wrenching pain was 10 months ago and 2,240 miles away in Pasadena, Calif. The only difference was, at the Rose Bowl, a devastating three-point loss ended the Nittany Lions’ magical 2016 season. It was over. Finished. Nothing left but to fly home to The Keystone State and stew.

Saturday night at The Horseshoe, while similarly heartbreaking, was slightly different. The No. 2 Nittany Lions fell in stunning fashion to No. 6 Ohio State, 39-38, and even after collapsing in the fourth quarter — even with misery written on their faces — Penn State possessed an undertone of hope.

“Anything can happen,” quarterback Trace McSorley said, eye black still smudged on his right cheek. “For us at this point last year, we wouldn’t have thought, ‘Hey, maybe we have a chance at the Rose Bowl.’ By the end of the year, we had a shot at the College Football Playoff.

“Teams lose. Upsets happen. We don’t control our own destiny, but we can focus on what we can control, which is coming in each day and working harder than ever and playing harder than ever on Saturdays. Doing whatever it takes to get wins from here on out.”

Added head coach James Franklin: “We’ve still got a lot of football ahead of us. As we saw how everything played out last year, this is a crazy game.”

It’s a crazy game that on Saturday, the Nittany Lions lost.

No longer is Penn State undefeated. The hopes of re-creating the unblemished 1994 season are over.

But the opportunity to live in Penn State lore like the 1982 and 1986 teams is still out there. National championship dreams aren’t shot.

Clemson won the College Football Playoff last season and lost to Pittsburgh in the regular season. Alabama captured the 2015 title despite falling to Ole Miss, and the Buckeyes did it in 2014 while dropping one at home to Virginia Tech.

Plus, No. 4 TCU lost to Iowa State on Saturday. The Nittany Lions weren’t the only top-5 team to fall, and they won’t be the last.

One loss to Ohio State doesn’t wipe away any chance at the College Football Playoff.

Understandably so, a crushing defeat can demoralize a fan base. But the Nittany Lions are determined to not let 39-38 define their season.

“This is going to help us in the long run. We’re going to be fine,” Miller said, perking up a bit after answering three questions in a row solemnly. “We’re going to learn from this and get better.”

Allen agreed.

“We just have to move on from it,” the safety said. “We have a whole season left.”

Now, it’s just a matter of how the Nittany Lions rebound, how they mentally pull themselves up off the floor and approach next week’s game at Michigan State and the contests after that.

McSorley doesn’t think that’ll be a problem. The leader of Penn State’s offense believes a loss like this will give Penn State “extra motivation.” It’ll give the Nittany Lions something to correct, something to strive to fix.

“If you’re sore, if you’re tired, it gets rid of that mentality,” McSorley added. “I need to put all that aside, whatever’s in my head, when I come to the Lasch Building, when I come to practice. That’s the only thing I’m focused on.

“Matchups like this, top-10 matchups, the margin of error is so small. It’s who’s doing the right thing Sunday night, Monday night, Tuesday night. Those nights make the difference between teams. It’s not always just Saturday. It’s through the whole week of preparation. Having this will motivate us to do the little things better throughout the week. We’ll be able to eliminate that margin of error.”

That starts on Sunday, when the Nittany Lions make their way to the Lasch Building for film review. Like every week, they’ll make their corrections and switch their focus to the next opponent, Sparty.

In reality, that’ll be hard to do 24 hours after having the carpet ripped out from underneath their feet. But the Nittany Lions know it’s necessary. It’s what has to happen in order to keep the car moving.

The road is bumpier now. But Penn State is still driving toward a Big Ten title and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

“We can bounce back,” senior tight end Mike Gesicki said. “We still have everything we want in front of us.”

John McGonigal: 814-231-4630, @jmcgonigal9

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