Sunday, September 25, 2016

In a Mirror, Darkly

Celebrating with the students, and our ride or dies, the MGoYipYips.
See all of Dustin's photos from the game at Maize n Brew. (Photo credit: Dustin Johnson)
The rout-like nature of the game this week allowed me to think about other notions regarding college football, and specifically Penn State's place in it, five years after what was one of the biggest and most soul wrenching scandals in the history of the sport.

Let's be transparent about a couple of very critical points before we move forward. Firstly, many Penn State loyalists are still wounded and horrified by the Sandusky child abuse scandal, because they may be Penn State fans, but they are thinking, feeling human beings first. They know the gravity, the magnitude, and the sheer awfulness of the whole of it and do not seek to wish it away, but rather want to channel it into positive directions of "Never Forget, so it never happens to anyone again." My genuine belief is that these fans are numerous, but not necessarily visible,  in part because, truth be told, many of us on the outside would rather bury that chapter of college football history in the past. Perhaps occasionally, we present some fist shaking of out revulsion at the scandal to remind ourselves that we are, in fact, human.  Part of this may be that creeping sense that the structural flaws of college football as constructed in American life today are a large part of what made the Sandusky scandal possible and those lessons show no signs of taking root in America writ large.  Whether we like it or not, there is still a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I" as it relates to one's program.

Secondly, we cannot deny that there is a faction within the Penn State fan community disconnected with reality. In rejecting it as such, have tried to force upon the rest of the college football world a narrative that is soulless, honor-free, and numb to the victims and their very real trauma and very real pain. These people do not deserve to be listened to or given any regard, as they have chosen to recreate a pretense of a false world, one built on lies at worst, or a blind eye and few questions if we are generous.  But the recriminations are so natural, so obvious; we hammer them because it makes us feel better about that we didn't choose that path.  Five years on, we're no closer to answers, no closer to healing, no closer to having seemed to learn anything, and that secondary tragedy is nearly as depressing as the original scandal.

All of that said, perhaps the more fascinating, which is to say hilarious rather than soul-numbing, disconnect from reality that Penn State suffers from is the idea that James Franklin is a coach on the level of an Urban Meyer, a Mark Dantonio, or a Jim Harbaugh. That James Franklin, who seems to understand less each passing year about the nature of time and clock management, is a high-level coach that can bring Penn State's "success with honor" vision to fruition. That James Franklin is the right man for the job in State College. That James Franklin, if given the choice, would be a general preference to run your program, even if you could get a Harbaugh (just ask the PennLive writers).

James Franklin pulled a rare moment of doubling down on a surrender field goal, choosing to kick a 21 yarder after a timeout taken to avoid a delay of game penalty.  This after his team had forced a three and out to open the half, and his offense had actually shown some signs of life, driving over 70 yards and making its first real impression on the Michigan side of the field all day. While I cannot prove this, I genuinely believe that this field goal had to inflame the competitive soul of Jim Harbaugh, who realized that quarter was being asked, but that no quarter was being considered, let alone granted.

So Coach Harbaugh called for the challenge on the spot on fourth down up 35-3 late in the third quarter. So Coach Harbaugh kept the starters in until the dying moments of the fourth quarter. Coach Harbaugh's philosophy is simple, we're out here to win the game, and your job is to stop us (a lesson he took from a 2004 game against Penn when he was at San Diego. I'm not calling off the dogs is about you getting stops than me not trying.) Harbaugh saw the tiny white flag attached to that field goal and ordered Penn State's continued devastation. You don't get to decide to surrender, you don't get to sue for peace, we're going to ground you into powder because I would expect no different if the roles were reversed.  This will lead to calls of "classlessness" and "poor sportsmanship" but Harbaugh "always sees the game as 0-0, no matter what the scoreboard says" in a paraphrase of Brian Griese from Saturday's telecast.  Harbaugh has stated that they only way you get better at playing football is playing football, and so those live snaps are some valuable time in the lab, seeing how concepts the staff have drawn up in the film room and on the practice field at the Glick play out in game situations.  You've got four legitimate running backs? Let's see how all of them work?  You've got three tight ends?  Let's see who can block and who can catch.  Coach Harbaugh knows the challenge that Michigan faces next week, not peeking ahead, but having to know that Wisconsin will be the first genuine test of Michigan's mettle.  The no quarter flag is flying at Michigan Stadium and the man who raised it knows the price involved.

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