By: Thomas Frank Carr
WARNING: NERD REFERENCES AHEAD
If you’ve never read the “The Song of Ice and Fire” otherwise known as “Game of Thrones” by George R.R. Martin, I would strongly recommend it. It’s not the best series of books ever written and it does have flaws, but it paints a fascinating picture of people. People are not all good, or evil, they are simply people with motivations and desires. It also has dragons and giant wolves, which is pretty awesome if you’re into that sort of thing.
You’re probably familiar with Martin’s propensity to kill of beloved characters in his book. That is not all that fascinating, as much as what he does to his characters that he does not kill. Those that survive page to page are slowly stripped of what defines them, revealing their true identity underneath.
This person is known as a great warrior? Cut off his sword hand and see what he becomes.
This one is known for being intelligent, but physically handicapped. What happens when you put that person on the front lines of a battle to defend their home? What happens when you take the family away from someone who is defined by it?
It seems as if Martin has penned a few pages of the Penn State Nittany Lions season this year. A team known for their resiliency and belief in themselves have lost two games in a row in heartbreaking, late game fashion.
Time after time last year, James Franklin and his players battled back from horrible starts and long odds to come away with a victory. Save a game at Kinnick Stadium in September, since January 1st, the Nittany Lions have lost their edge when the chips are down.
So the question is, who do they become now? What are they made of underneath their identity?
Franklin may already be on his way to forging a new identity for his team after their 27-24 defeat at the hands of Michigan State on Saturday.
“We haven’t been running the ball consistently this year. It’s not a Saquon (Barkley) issue, it’s a team issue. We’re going to work to get it corrected. If we’ve got to go back to the old ‘inside drill’ and just do that every day in practice, we’re going to do that. We’re going to become a more hard –nosed team on both sides of the ball. Tight end, o-line, running backs, everybody. We’re going to be more physical upfront, we’re not right now. We’re too finesse,” Franklin said in his post-game press conference.
That should come as a gut-punch to Franklin’s players. He essentially called out their manhood, something that is sacred to young men, especially those that play this sport.
It’s also been a festering wound at the heart of the teams that Franklin has been captaining for the past two years. They have not been able to run the ball because they have not developed the mentality to do so.
Yes, sanctions have hamstrung the offensive line longer than other position.
Yes, they have had young players and injuries to key positions for the last two years.
It does not change the fact the Nittany Lions have not improved in a meaningful way along the offensive line despite talent and experience.
This should not come as doom and gloom though.
It should also come as music to the ears of Penn State fans who have been begging the coaching staff to run the ball from under center and with a fullback. Neither of those things are necessary to be an effective running team; this is.
Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State are just three examples of teams that are effective at running the ball from a spread formation (Alabama runs elements of it with Jalen Hurts). All of these teams have the ability to run the ball and only one of them employs a fullback with any regularity. The difference, other than the time that they’ve been recruiting at a full scholarship limit, is mentality.
The last two weeks, Ohio State and Michigan State attacked the Nittany Lions on both sides of the ball. They played with a confidence and aggression that forced Penn State on its collective heel.
The result is that their national championship aspirations are up in flames, as are the hopes of a Big 10 Championship. It’s as if George R.R. Martin himself cast them into the fire like one of his characters to see what they were underneath their façade.
The interesting thing is that, despite the catchy proverb, it’s not really iron that sharpens iron. It’s heat.
The Nittany Lions have two choices in front of them, melt in that heat or re-forge themselves into something new and better.
The only question is what do they become next?