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Score, stats might not have satisfied fans and geeks, but Penn State and Rutgers players hold mutual respect

PennLive.com logo PennLive.com 12/1/2019 By David Jones, The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.

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STATE COLLEGE – Take a look around Beaver Stadium on Saturday evening and you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone excited about Penn State’s game against Rutgers. And that’s only human nature.

Think about the emotional dynamics going on here: The Nittany Lions were coming off a road game against perhaps the best team in the history of the Big Ten conference. And exactly seven days later, they were asked to get ready to play a home game against a team that would be in the conversation for the worst in Big Ten history.

In a week’s time.

Now, put yourself in a coach’s place and tell me your foolproof plan to get a Penn State team ready for the league-winless Scarlet Knights, an opponent that has not come within four touchdowns of anyone on their conference schedule. And your own team put everything they had into that game in Columbus and had it in doubt in the 4th quarter – something nobody else on Ohio State’s schedule has been close to accomplishing.

How do you convince the Nittany Lions that they must play at their usual peak performance? They’re not stupid. They can see the eight Big Ten scores on the Scarlet Knights’ schedule results during a season in which their coach was fired in September:

0-30

0-52

7-48

0-35

7-42

10-38

21-56

0-27

Not only that, it’s the end of a long season. The finish line is in sight. Nobody runs that last 100 as fast as the first one in a distance race in which the order of finish has already been determined.

You don’t play a last game like this for stats. You play it to get it over with.

Was anyone excited about this contest?

Not the students. The ones who happened to be back from break a day early barely filled the bottom 10 rows of bleachers in the southeast corner.

Not the rank-and-file fans. Forget the announced crowd (tickets sold) of 98,895. The stadium looked like it might for a Blue-White game, from the looks of it, maybe 60,000 spread around the big erector set.

You couldn’t blame the weather. As final-week conditions go, this was a stroll in the park. Light breeze, some filtered sun, no precip.

Want me to be brutally honest? I’ve been dreading writing this column all season. Because I knew it would have all the suspense of one of those “Epilogues” in an old Quinn Martin Production. The mystery has been solved. Everyone knows who committed the heinous crime. Cannon or Mannix or Barnaby Jones is simply detailing how he knew who the killer was and stalked down the perpetrator.

You can’t write a decent story when there’s no tension and the conflict has already been identified and resolved.

That’s what Rutgers @ Penn State was. To fans, to reporters, to coaches and to the most important principals involved – the Nittany Lions themselves.

They watched Rutgers on tape all week. They knew that, as long as they took care of a couple of key players – especially a resolute little sophomore running back from the central Jersey burg of Vineland named Isaih Pacheco, everything would be fine.

And eventually, it was. After enduring some catcalls and grumbles received while up a mere 7-3 in the third quarter, the Lions finally popped a couple of big plays and won the game going away, 27-6.

Games such as this one at the end of a spent season are not about what some fans think they are. Not to the players on the heavily favored team, they aren’t. They aren’t about rolling up a big margin and making the stat geeks giddy with some crazy numbers.

They actually are somewhat about respect for fellow competitors. The best players on a really good team like Penn State actually do hold a certain code even with the least capable members of a team like Rutgers.

They are about the meetings after the game between players like Pacheco and PSU linebacker Micah Parsons. The sophomore from Harrisburg really only knows one way to play and collected double-digit tackles (10) yet again against the Knights.

He sought out Pacheco’s #1 white jersey after the game just to tell him how he felt:

“I said to him, ‘I don’t know what your future’s like. But the way you play, you’ll definitely go far in life.’”

Parsons made a point of finding Pacheco because, along with backup quarterback Johnny Langan, he represented fight in the face of almost certain defeat. He stayed and fought when others did not for various reasons.

Langan has started since the Maryland game in week 5 because the incumbent starter Artur Witkowski knew he wanted to transfer after head coach Chris Ash was fired. And Sitkowski didn’t want to relinquish a year of eligibility. So, he told interim RU coach Nunzio Campanile he would be unavailable barring an absolute emergency for the rest of the season.

Pacheco played on even when fellow RB Raheem Blackshear announced the same plan at the same juncture. He has been running like a man on a contending team all season. Against Penn State, he blasted for 102 yards on 18 carries (a 5.7 average). On several carries, the 5-11, 210-pound Pacheco burrowed along beneath mounds of humanity resembling rugby scrums, invisible and yet the irresistible power of the pile moving forward.

“Running like that, as hard as he did, salute to him,” said Parsons. “Even when his team’s down. Never gave up. Never wavered. That’s what we admired about him on the film.

“I think he played a great game. And I feel like his future’s so bright.”

Now, you can say the Nittany Lions as a group took the day off and maybe they did. For all the reasons detailed above.

You can also say Penn State might have damaged its chance of a Rose Bowl invitation relative to its main competition Wisconsin, and that could be true, too. Because the Badgers had all sorts of ramifications on the line in Minneapolis and won impressively while Penn State was playing out its string with zero at stake. So, it’s quite possible the Badgers will vault the Lions in the College Football Playoff rankings that commonly drive bowls’ decisions, including the Tournament of Roses Committee.

But that’s the breaks of a game like this. You can’t craft the schedule perfectly for maximum emotional effect every week. These almost adults between 18 and 23 are not going to be able to fully control the incentives that weigh upon them.

Football is a game of effort as much as skill. Especially at this level, players are going to reach a fever pitch for some events and are going to take a break when they can.

On Saturday night, the Nittany Lions could and did.

At this point everyone knows who they are, anyway. That’s the thing about a 12-game schedule. It lasts for three full months and when it’s over there are no secrets about identity.

Everyone in uniform knows who everyone else is. And they hold respect for that uniform, no matter whether it represents a team that wins a lot or one that doesn’t.

That respect can’t be quantified or digitized by scores or stats. That’s what we do, not what they do. And they know why they do what they do. Better than we do.

Penn State rapid reaction: Nittany Lions 27, Rutgers 6 (Senior Day at Beaver Stadium).

Penn State’s James Franklin addresses rumors that link him to other jobs; could the Lions soon extend his contract?

Penn State-Rutgers postgame show with Bob Flounders and David Jones; game balls, and more.

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©2019 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)

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