We begin with a premise that seems obvious in light of Michigan State's 34-10 victory over Penn State in Saturday's regular-season finale: How do the Lions get back on equal footing with Big Ten powers like the Spartans?
Is it just a matter of restocking a roster left threadbare by the NCAA sanctions handed down in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, or something more?
Or is the premise itself faulty, as at least two Nittany Lions suggest?
I don't think it's a gap whatsoever, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. Yeah, we're low on numbers, but there's not really a large difference from Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State. We can hang with anybody in the Big Ten.
That's his story, and he's sticking to it. Same for linebacker Nyeem Wartman.
They're not more talented than us, he said of the Spartans. They've got a good team. They're definitely a good team, but when it comes to talent, we're a young team. We're going to get older. We're going to recoup. We're going to bounce back.
There's a sizable amount of bouncing to do, considering the Lions carry a 6-6 record into a bowl game. But really, this was the way it was supposed to look at this point, over two years after Mark Emmert and his henchmen marched the program to the chopping block.
The Lions' fortunes figured to dip, as scholarship restrictions dug at the roster's depth and talent level, and well, they went from 8-4 to 7-5 in two years under Bill O'Brien, to where they are now in their first year under James Franklin.
Franklin has recruited tirelessly, promoted endlessly. But that's only a start.
We're going to close the gap by developing the players that we have -- and we've got great players and good kids here -- and we're going to recruit for the future, he said. It is what it is. There's nobody more passionate about getting those things fixed as quickly as we possibly can, but there's a difference right now.
Penn State, which entered Saturday's game 113th in the nation in three offensive categories, gained just 233 yards on Saturday, 38 of those on the ground. The Lions were knocked sideways when R.J. Shelton returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, and for all intents and purposes knocked flat when Christian Hackenberg's pass was intercepted by cornerback Trae Waynes in the end zone with 17 seconds left in the first half.
It was 13-3, MSU, at that point. The Spartans assembled a seven-play, 63-yard touchdown drive on their first possession of the second half, with quarterback Connor Cook (13 for 25, 180 yards) hitting two big passes and tailback Jeremy Langford (30-118 rushing) going in from the 3 for the first of his two TDs.
Then Hackenberg was sacked and stripped by Marcus Rush, the aptly named defensive end, with linebacker Taiwan Jones recovering at the PSU 18. That led to Cook's TD pass to Tony Lippett, giving Sparty a 27-3 lead and ending the day's competitive phase.
I think the game just really comes down to, we had an opportunity to make some plays, Franklin said. We weren't able to do that, and had some critical mistakes.
Not exactly a newsflash at this point.
Franklin said that kicker Sam Ficken, playing his final home game, hit the middle of the ball on the opening kickoff, resulting in a line drive that Shelton fielded on a bounce. Ficken was the only one who had a decent shot at him as he veered left, but Shelton shrugged him off at the 27 and continued to the end zone.
The defense performed heroically -- again, nothing new there -- but as always was working with very little margin for error. And very little help from the struggling offense.
Hackenberg, who went 21 for 45 for 195 yards, made a decent throw in the direction of freshman wide receiver Chris Godwin in the waning second of the first half, and Godwin, jostling with Waynes on the right side of the end zone, adjusted to the ball. But it glanced off his hands, and right to the MSU defender.
Coupled with his second-half fumble, Hackenberg now has 19 turnovers this season 15 interceptions and four lost fumbles. He nonetheless said the season has been the best thing that could possibly happen to him, and also addressed a report from earlier in the week in which his father, Erick, called any chatter about his son transferring a lot of conjecture and something that doesnt even need to be talked about at this point.
I think you guys were the ones that made that whole thing up (about transferring), the younger Hackenberg said. Never had anything set out about that. Moving forward, man. Its where Im at. Its where I want to be. Its the team that I love, the guys that I love, the university that I love to be at. I wouldnt rather be anywhere else.
Fair enough, but how can this year be a good thing for anyone, much less Hackenberg?
Learned a lot, he said. Learned a lot about myself. Learned a lot about the game of football -- how to deal with things I didn't have to face, ever, in my entire life, so I think it's something I'm going to look back on and be extremely appreciative of down the road.
It remains to be seen if it is good for anyone else. Franklin, for starters, is banking on the recuperative powers of the 15 practices his team is allotted as it prepares for a bowl game.
We have a lot of work to do, obviously, so I'm looking forward to that time, he said.
And he's looking beyond that, too. To days that he can only hope are better than Saturday.