Penn State football: Debating whether the 2018 season is a disappointment

The college football regular season is in the books, the playoff has been set, and the bowls have been announced. So that leads us to the big question about Penn State’s season: Is it a disappointment?

There are arguments on both sides. Penn State is 9-3 and ranked No. 12 in the College Football Playoff rankings. But many expected a little more from PSU this season. Was that fair? Does that matter?

We asked our two resident Penn State beat writers about their thoughts on the matter. Here’s what they said:

John McGonigal: Yes, it’s a disappointment

Las Vegas casinos set the Nittany Lions’ over/under win total at 9.5 in May, and most beat writers projected a 9-3 regular season. Why? Because this team had obvious question marks and issues, ones that James Franklin brought up repeatedly in the offseason.

Depth at defensive tackle. Inexperience at linebacker. Eight starters lost on Brent Pry’s unit. Not to mention Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton getting drafted, Joe Moorhead and Charles Huff leaving for Mississippi State, and Josh Gattis bolting for ‘Bama. All of that was going to be difficult to overcome.

And sure, with Trace McSorley — the program’s most prolific passer — at the helm, fans figured the Nittany Lions had a shot in any game. But for those paying attention in the preseason, from the get-go, this was not a playoff team. It may have had that hype. Pundits and experts might have placed Penn State in that upper tier. But it clearly didn’t belong in the elite, top-four discussion in 2018.

So why is it a disappointment? If that was the reality, then why is it a letdown? Because of the way 9-3 happened. The drops. The playcalling. The missed tackles. How soft the Big Ten was. Wisconsin, a preseason playoff pick, finished with seven wins. Northwestern won the West after falling to Akron and Duke in the non-conference. Ohio State — the Big Ten’s best playoff candidate — got blown out by Purdue by 29 points and nearly lost to Maryland.

With Scott Frost still figuring things out at Nebraska, this might be the weakest the Big Ten will be for the next five years. And Penn State didn’t take advantage. Once again, it had Ohio State on the ropes, up two scores in the fourth quarter. And then the missed tackles and fourth-and-5 happened. That’s why it’s disappointing. If the Nittany Lions got worked or lost on a 50-50 ball, then fine. But that had to be the most frustrating night of the Franklin era for the players, staff and fans alike.

Then, that loss is compounded by a confusing showing against Michigan State two weeks later. Why the Nittany Lions didn’t test Michigan State’s horrendous pass defense, which was allowing 305 passing yards per game at that point, is still baffling. Penn State mustered 17 points in a loss — the fewest scored in a home Big Ten game since 2015.

Even after the defeat to Sparty, Penn State was on the New Year’s Six bubble. But no one could honestly watch Penn State’s 20-7 win over Rutgers in Week 12 and say it belonged in the Fiesta or Peach Bowl.

Perhaps this is a building block in Franklin’s fifth season. It ought to be, with freshmen like Micah Parsons, Pat Freiermuth, KJ Hamler and more bursting onto the scene.

Nine wins, possibly 10, is nothing to scoff at. Not when it would cap the first time since 1980-82 that Penn State rattled off three straight 10-win seasons. But 2018 didn’t feel like the previous two seasons. The magic wasn’t there. And neither was the big-play production. Nor the consistency.

And that is disappointing.

Josh Moyer: Yes, it’s a disappointment

I can hear the other side groaning already. How can a potential top-10 season be a disappointment? What’s wrong with what could be a third straight 10-win campaign? How is being on the verge of the NY6 a failure?

Well, that’s easy. By definition, disappointment is not living up to expectations. It’s a letdown. And how else would you describe a team with preseason College Football Playoff hype, one led by arguably the greatest quarterback in program history, watching that hope die by Week 7? And after after back-to-back losses no less, in games Penn State should have won? I know how I would describe it: Incredibly disappointing.

Yeah, sure, the numbers on paper look great. If the Nittany Lions win the bowl, they’ll crack the top 10. Great. Fantastic. But what exactly is the notable win here? Even if Penn State beats Kentucky, the Wildcats might be without their best player in LB Josh Allen and maybe their second-best player in RB Benny Snell.

This was a down year for the Big Ten, a path to the playoff made easier than past seasons. Wisconsin was a joke, Northwestern made the conference championship after losing to Akron, and Sparty looked like 2011 Penn State incarnate. Also, Rutgers. What Nittany Lion wins are we supposed to be impressed by, exactly? Their best opponent, based on AP votes, is Appalachian State — the Sun Belt opponent that pushed them to overtime. The second-best win is Iowa, which played a grand total of two ranked teams this season. (It lost both times.)

Let’s look closer at two of the losses. Against Ohio State, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Penn State had a 98 percent chance to win while leading by 12 midway through the fourth quarter. Penn State blew it — after one of the worst offensive calls of the decade by Ricky Rahne on fourth-and-5. Then came the Michigan State loss, in which no deep passes came until late in the game — despite Sparty’s struggles in the secondary. If Penn State wins either of those games, I wouldn’t label this season a disappointment.

But I don’t understand how you call it a success after that. Sure, most of us expected nine or 10 wins this season — but we didn’t expect such a quick exit, such an offensive struggle and such mediocrity in the opposition. This was not a good year for the conference, for example, and yet Penn State averaged 11 points less in a Big Ten game this season compared to last season. That’s not supposed to happen when eight of 11 offensive starters return.

This wasn’t a terrible season. It was good. But when you expect greatness and instead you settle for good-with-flashes-of-great, that’s a disappointment. The only part left to the argument is to what degree.

Maybe PSU is the victim of its own success; expectations were only high because of how well they performed the two seasons prior. But, either way you look at it, watching the playoff hopes evaporate two weeks before Halloween is no moral victory. It’s a disappointment.

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