Column: 7-5 vs. 6-6

Story posted November 22, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Maddie Brightman

This weekend the Cornhuskers will return to Beaver Stadium for the first time since that solemn and chilling afternoon in 2011. Penn Staters everywhere will always remember the Nittany Lions’ return home, the week after the Sandusky scandal was released, and the first game without Joe Paterno as the head coach in nearly 50 years. It was an emotional afternoon and a game that will remain in people’s memories forever.

While this weekend’s matchup against Nebraska is certainly expected to have less emotional value, it will be a touching game, as the seniors take the field at Beaver Stadium one last time.

The Big Ten match up will mark the final home game of the season and will offer an opportunity for Penn State to clinch a winning record.

Heading into week 11, the Nittany Lions hold an overall record of 6-4. A win against Nebraska at home this weekend is much more likely than Penn State finishing the season with a win at Wisconsin. A win on Saturday would likely mean ending the season 7-5, and with a winning record.

When asked about clinching a winning a season at Tuesday’s press conference, Bill O’Brien talked about the importance of a winning record when going into the offseason. However, O’Brien believes that’s not what Saturday is about.

“I think the goal on Saturday is not about clinching a winning season, but it’s about going out there and doing everything we can against a really tough Nebraska team.”

O’Brien stated that his biggest goal for this weekend’s game is “helping the seniors go out winners.”

O’Brien’s dismissive answer to the media on Tuesday poses an important question about the meaning of Penn State’s potential record. So what exactly are the implications of finishing the season at 7-5, versus 6-6?

Throughout the season O’Brien has been criticized for his lack of creativity and urgency with regard to play calling. Maybe finishing the season .500 and barely putting up a fight against Big Ten opponents means that O’Brien isn’t the right guy for the job. Or maybe it suggests

that O’Brien’s head coaching abilities and creative offensive mind have been overrated all this time.

With the exception of Michigan, nearly all of Penn State’s wins have come against teams who were noticeably less skilled and who had losing records. If Penn State finishes the season 6-6 with few big time wins, maybe Athletic Director Dave Joyner needs to begin looking for new options.

If Joyner and the rest of the Penn State athletic department become concerned about O’Brien’s ability to win, this could mean higher expectations for O’Brien and the football team next year. A stronger performance from coaching and playing could be in demand if O’Brien is on the chopping block.

But maybe the potential 6-6 and record falls on the players, and not Bill O’Brien. If Penn State finishes the season .500 does it mean Christian Hackenberg isn’t the guy? Maybe it suggests he is overrated and other options need to be explored. Maybe Tyler Ferguson needs to be used more often or, maybe Penn State looks to recruit other quarterbacks.

Or maybe it just means Hackenberg is an eighteen-year-old working to improve his game and he is still adjusting to the level of college football.

But maybe a 6-6 record gets blamed on the sanctions. Comments could be released suggesting that the team’s lack of performance is a result of fewer scholarships, a smaller roster, and the difficulty in regard to recruiting. People could easily blame the losses against Big Ten teams on the disparity of depth between Penn State and other in-conference opponents.

If Penn State finishes the season 6-6, a variety of factors could be up for blame, but the most important part will be determining how to approach next season. New options may need to be considered with regard to coaching, players, or the way the program is run. Penn State will need to create a plan of action for improving performance in 2014 and finishing the season with a stronger and more importantly, winning record.

If Penn State loses the next two games, this season will mean nothing. Penn Staters will remember the win against Michigan, but no one will care that the Nittany Lions beat Kent State or a 1-8 Purdue team. The season will be looked at as a complete wash and Bill O’Brien’s second year as coach will be completely forgotten.

However, if Penn State clinches a winning season on Saturday, all of the concerns for next season will slowly fade away. Although 7-5 is worse than last year, and not the record Penn State strives for, Bill O’Brien and players will feel more security in their positions with the team. Fans will look back and remember the Michigan spectacular and Hackenberg’s first year as a Nittany Lion. Penn State would go into the offseason with momentum and the 2013 season would reflect more positive then negatives. Small changes would be made the following year, but overall many would look at the season as a success.

The result of this weekend’s game poses a variety of situations and questions for the Penn State football program in 2014. Saturday’s Senior Day game, might actually have higher perceived emotional value than expected.

The Nittany Lions will take on the Cornhuskers at 3:30 on ComRadio.

Maddie Brightman is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact her, email mvb5601@psu.edu.

Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Gene J Puskar)