“The off-season that never sleeps,” I called it, as I roll my eyes at what used to be. Heck, half of us had a three month siesta this year and the other half were too busy keeping hope alive to notice. And then, the sun came back out and before long, so did Nittany Nation, little by little. It’s been a bit over a week now but two small words offered up a sliver of light and a level of defiance from Penn State football as they subtly announced, ’We’re Back,’ on social media. Now, I’m not undermining what we all went through so far this year, but if there were ever a need for the comforts of sweet home Happy Valley, the time is now. With our football squad leading the way, back to state it is!
Right around the same time last week those trusty old preseason preview magazines began popping up on the shelves of grocery stores nationwide and the Nittany Lions were a Top 5 team in most, predicted to make another run at the elusive playoffs. I’m not surprised. Beyond all the on-field talent slated to return in 2020 (more on Micah, Big Pat, Lawn Boys Act 2, and Clifford the Big Blue Dog among many others later) we’ve got ourselves a coach that can navigate the murkiest of waters better than most.
For some reason, the name Joe Gibbs came to mind all off-season for me whenever I let my thoughts drift into a football future. As a head coach in the NFL, Gibbs always had the knack for turning tough situations, like a player’s strike, into championship seasons and it’s already been proven that FrankLion can pull magic out of the hat, considering the quagmire he walked into back in 2014. With an entire off-season to do nothing more than plot and plan a comeback, I don’t think there’s a coach in the country better equipped than ours to lead the way. Under the circumstances, that includes Nick Saban, Dabo Sweeney, or anyone else you want to throw out there in the wind, including our arch nemesis, Ohio State’s Ryan Day.
Maybe, just maybe, that’s why a team that finished No. 9 in January with a whole slew of stiff competition ahead of us suddenly found itself teetering among the Top 5 as June rolled in. Or maybe it really is the men he’s assembled that actually rock those Basic Blues and Black Shoes that have Phil Steele so giddy about our prospects. I mean, my goodness, do you remember the total second half domination we all witnessed out of Micah Parsons, Journey Brown and others last we saw them terrorize a Tiger in Dallas?
Sure we lost 100 watts of electricity as KJ went to Denver and Yetur Gross-Matos joined forces with former Nittany Lion/State College resident Matt Rhule in Carolina, but the prospect of Shaka Toney wreaking havoc off the edge, Lamont Wade crashing down on the run, and Big Pat Freiermuth flexing his muscle as he trucks over helpless defenders is too tasty not too savor. The Art of Chaos and leader of the WildDogs, Sean Spencer, may have left to reunite with SuperQuon and the NY Giants but the addition of Kirk Ciarrocca as new OC (plucked from the clutches of a thorn in our side at Minnesota) just may be more than enough to offset that.
QB Sean Clifford played ahead of schedule last season, truth be known. If I had told you this time a year ago that we would clock in at No. 4 when the first playoff poll came out in October, you probably would have rolled your eyes. Probably just as hard as our hearts sank in Minnesota less than a week later. The wear and tear of being a first year starter ultimately took its toll down the stretch but I’ve got no reason to believe #14 isn’t going to come back stronger, more determined and wiser heading into 2020.
In the months ahead, we are all wading into the unknown. Nobody knows if there will be fans and tailgates, or even football as of yet. The biggest casualty of football season may be our beloved Whiteout, although the prospects of 110K all decked out in white Tyvek suits and masks is intriguing, to say the least. The only thing I am sure about is that as of today, back to state is full speed ahead with FrankLion and our Nittany Lions leading the way. “The off-season that never sleeps,” I used to call it. Yeah right! The countdown to kickoff is already underway, whether we get to see the fireworks or not still hangs in the balance!