It was the worst of times, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times again. Was Charles Dickens talking about Penn State’s month of October 2013?
From the Indiana game, to the Michigan game, to the Ohio State game—Penn State fans have experienced thrills and chills long before October 31st frightening holiday finish.
By now, most of us have ranted and raved, hypothesized and rationalized through the emotions of a historic, 63-14 defeat at the hands of Ohio State.
I’m not going to blame this thing on the defense, as some want to do. I saw a defensive meltdown coming this season. An offense like Ohio State’s was primed to do just what they did to us.
Today, I’m simply going to posit that this annihilation was five years in the making.
Most reasonable PSU fans knew that it was going to take a great game by Penn State and an average game from Ohio State to make Saturday a close affair. When PSU played poorly and Ohio State played flawlessly, that emphasized the inherent inequality of our two rosters.
Step with me into my time machine, and we’ll examine.
In 2009, Ohio State brought in the No. 4 recruiting class in the country (according to Phil Steele’s composite rankings from various services); Penn State scored the 14th best class. Those players—potential redshirt seniors on these 2013 squads—didn’t exhibit that big of a talent gap. The 2009 recruiting class shouldn’t have produced a 49-point loss by itself. (Anthony Fera and Justin Brown were the two significant sanctions-related defections from that class.)
The 2010 class is even more fascinating, as Penn State scored a 4th ranked class versus the Buckeyes’ No. 13 class. Theoretically, Penn State should have been poised to compete evenly with OSU in the Shoe on Saturday night, considering the classes of ’09 and ’10 alone.
Look at that 2010 class a little bit more closely—and study the ramifications of NCAA sanctions on that class—and you’ll realize why PSU couldn’t play with OSU.
Blue-chip quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Paul Jones flunked out of new coach Bill O’Brien’s system. RB Silas Redd, LB Khairi Fortt, and TE Kevin Haplea—all top 100 recruits according to Steele—fled when the sanctions allowed immediate transfers. Another top prospect (Dakota Royer) kept the free education but quit football (thanks to NCAA mandate). Take those six guys out of the 2010 class, and it plummets from No. 4 out of the top 25 stratosphere quickly.
Before we start looking at the 2011 and 2012 classes, a basic conclusion can be had—the senior and redshirt senior candidates for Penn State’s 2013 team are at least 15 spots beneath the Buckeyes’.
The 2011 classes ranked No. 5 (Ohio State) vs. No. 25 (Penn State), and while the vast majority of Penn State’s recruits amazingly chose to stay through the sanctions, a startling deficiency of linebackers and defensive backs entered in that class. Which makes a lot of sense when you flashback to all of those painful Buckeye runs through the open field last Saturday night (past a few PSU walk-on players, no less). Top-rated quarterback Braxton Miller came to Columbus in this, Jim Tressell’s last, recruiting class.
Now, we’re ready to enter the “scandal” era. With Paterno ousted and without an acting head coach, Penn State patchworked a small recruiting class ranked about 50th in 2012; meanwhile, Ohio State finished robustly in the top 5 with incoming legend Urban Meyer equipped with over two months to close out his first class (mainly with Penn State’s decommitments).
The 2013 class started strong for PSU, on par with even Ohio State early on. Then, the NCAA overstepped its bounds in handing out unprecedented sanctions, and despite steadfast commitments from elite players Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman, Penn State once again finished around fiftieth. Meyer and Ohio State, meanwhile, walked away with the top recruiting class in the country.
And of course, the defections of past players and scholarship reductions means that Penn State’s two-deep is thin and our special teams rosters is filled with “run-ons” and inexperienced players. Just 61 scholarship athletes will do that to you. Ask USC.
What’s the point of this detailed recap of recruiting history? How should it provide you any “midweek serenity” after last weekend’s heartbreak?
Penn State—with 25% fewer players and significantly lower quality of players—cannot be expected to compete with Ohio State’s full roster in 2013. And 2014 isn’t looking good either.
Most of the Big Ten, for that matter, isn’t equipped to compete with Ohio State. Their 20-game winning streak should be sufficient evidence of that fact.
Rather than rail and wail and lament Penn State’s insufficiency though, I’d suggest some perspective.
Paterno’s final recruiting classes didn’t leave the cupboard stocked very full. The NCAA then came in and cleared out some more of our supply. O’Brien got the most out of last year’s squad, and this year has put us in position to beat a loaded (but underachieving) Michigan and to compete with top-25 UCF. It’s extremely likely that this year’s recruiting class will finish in the top 25 nationally, and I’m fairly certain that our post-season ban will be lifted for the 2014 season.
We may have lost 63-14, but this wasn’t a Penn State team competing on a level playing field with a typical Ohio State team. If you want to talk about a 63-14 score between two teams on a level playing field, talk about the 1994 OSU/PSU game. The word “embarrassment” can surely be used about that 1994 contest.
But I won’t call my 2013 Lions an embarrassment for what happened on October 26. It may be the worst of times, but I’m convinced that good times are just around the corner.
Ryan Murphy is a frequent contributor to Nittany Lions Den and author of Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives, available in paperback and ebook.