Penn State safety Nick Scott still can’t forget the sting from last season’s back-to-back losses — even if he’d prefer not to think about it.
He remembers the scarlet-and-gray road crowd standing on its feet after last year’s one-point loss to Ohio State. He recalls the trip to East Lansing, Mich., a week later when lightning forced his teammates inside a cramped locker room for three hours and 22 minutes. And he remembers walking off the field with another loss, his College Football Playoff hopes dissolved, when the clock struck zero against Sparty.
Now, Scott’s Nittany Lions are in a similar situation. And the team captain is doing everything he can to avoid history repeating itself.
“Last year, I think we got a little bit away from our one-game-a-week mantra,” Scott said after practice Wednesday night. “After what happened last year, we were focused on what we needed to do to be in a certain position at the end of the season, rather than just focusing on the task at hand. And, obviously, we felt the consequences.
“So this year, guys are being extremely mature. We moved on from last week, and we’re 100 percent focused on Michigan State; trying to avoid a repeat of last year.”
The bye week can only help, Scott and his teammates said. A week ago, coach James Franklin acknowledged three days after another collapse against the Buckeyes that the loss was still painful. Players were seen around campus, at bus stops and on their way to classes, as if they were headed to a wake in the middle of the week.
For the second straight season, Penn State had watched as the Buckeyes stole their near-certain victory. For the second consecutive meeting with OSU, based on ESPN’s analytics, the Nittany Lions had better than a 95 percent chance to win in the fourth quarter — before it all fell apart.
Last year, Penn State knew it needed to beat Michigan State to stand a chance at the College Football Playoff. This season, the situation is nearly identical — except the Nittany Lions say they’ve had more time to reflect and fine-tune their focus on MSU instead of the CFP. They won’t lose to Sparty again.
“That kind of helps us, being able to sit on that loss,” quarterback Trace McSorley said, “learn as much as we can, let that pain set in and learn from it.”
McSorley acknowledged over the summer that the 2017 loss to Ohio State “might have been hanging around in some guys’ minds more than necessary.” But both he and Franklin addressed the parallels to 2017 these last two weeks.
According to players at the regular team meetings, it wasn’t so much what the two said — but how they said it. They were animated and passionate. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said their message was simple: “This is not going to happen again.”
“That’s been a huge topic for us,” Gross-Matos added. “Really trying to get the team to focus on making sure what happened to us last year doesn’t happen to us this year.”
Last season was a perfect storm of issues. Not only were the Nittany Lions coming off of the heartbreaking 39-38 loss to the Buckeyes, but they were also forced to endure a three-plus hour delay inside the tiny away locker room at Spartan Stadium.
Some players grew hungry and Chick-fil-A was ordered. Many more grew bored and napped, watched Netflix or played Hangman. They were wet, tired and confused. And although the conditions didn’t help Michigan State, either, it was far from routine for a team that prides itself on consistency.
This year, AccuWeather is calling only for morning rain. No thunderstorms are in the forecast. And Penn State is better equipped to handle that dizzying loss to Ohio State. “Bye week was huge,” Scott said. “Guys took the right approach.”
The Nittany Lions may have been a similar situation last year. But they believe the result will be different this time around.
“You can learn from last year and the mistakes we made between weeks,” offensive lineman Will Fries said. “This week, we have a better idea of just focusing up — and focusing on this week only.”