In a season that has brought Andrew Nelson nothing but difficulties — that has been, in point of fact, rather frustrating for Penn State’s redshirt sophomore offensive tackle — he had no problem swatting aside the notion that the Nittany Lions might view Saturday’s regular-season finale against Michigan State any differently than, say, that Week Two meeting with Buffalo.
Everybody understands that the sixth-ranked Spartans (10-1) will be playing for a berth in the Big Ten championship game — “We’re not dummies here,” Nelson said during a conference call with reporters earlier this week — but he was hesitant to cast the Nittany Lions (7-4) as spoilers.
“Obviously it’s a very highly ranked team and they’re a great team,” he said. “They just beat Ohio State, and that’s huge, but the way we’re approaching this game, it’s the same as any other game.”
That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it.
“Can I sit here and tell you that if we walk out of that stadium victorious that we’re not going to have a heightened sense of, ‘That was amazing,’ and a heightened sense of momentum going into the bowl game?” he asked. “No, that’s absolutely the case. But going into it, we’re not really looking at this game as, ‘Let’s spoil this for Michigan State.’ It’s just, ‘We have a great opportunity to play a great team and go out there and show what we can do.’ That’s just kind of the way we’re looking at it right now.”
Playing last week without quarterback Connor Cook (shoulder), the Spartans beat the No. 3 Buckeyes 17-14 on a last-second field goal by Michael Geiger. Backups Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry shared time at QB in Cook’s absence, and the MSU defense limited the explosive Buckeyes to a paltry 132 yards.
“Looking at Michigan State’s defense,” Nelson said, “they’re as good as any.”
But if he once viewed certain games as bigger than others, that is no longer the case.
“I think that this staff,” he said, “has really done a great job saying, ‘Listen, guys, the important thing in this program is to win. We’re going to do everything we can to win, and it doesn’t matter who we play, how we do it.’ ”
He has had a hard time finding his way onto the field for games great and small this fall. He started the opener against Temple at right tackle, and the next week against Buffalo opened at left tackle. Then he injured his left knee on the final play of the first half ± a chronic problem, coach James Franklin has said — and missed the second half as well as the next three games, against Rutgers, San Diego State and Army.
He started at right tackle against Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland, but went down again in the third quarter of the game against the Terrapins and missed all of the Illinois game, and most of the Nov. 7 loss at Northwestern. He returned to the starting lineup last Saturday, when the Lions lost 28-16 to Michigan.
“I guess if I had to explain the season, I would say it didn’t go exactly how I planned it,” he said. “Obviously in your mind, prior to the season, you have a way you think things are going to go. Unfortunately for me, that’s just not the way it went this year. Obviously at times I’ve been frustrated with things.”
And then some.
“At times I think I was honestly just kind of pissed off after each one of these things,” he said, adding that he was appreciative of the aid given him by the team doctors and training staff. “Obviously there’s times where you’re like, ‘Geez, what’s going on?’ ”
But he has tried to keep a stiff upper lip, tried to stay positive. Same for those times when he considers the line’s ups and downs. This year that group has allowed a Big Ten-worst 37 sacks, just seven off the school-record total it surrendered a year ago.
“I think the media likes to take the sack number and make that this extremely important thing that we all look at, like we’re counting sacks after every single game,” he said. “That’s just not the way it is. The thing we care about is winning football games, giving our offense the best opportunity to be successful. Those are the things we’re worried about.”
So the linemen look at film, he said, and try to get better. There has also been an ever-changing cast. Nelson started at right tackle against the Wolverines, then moved to the left side in the second half, in place of Paris Palmer, with Brendan Mahon coming off the bench to man the right side.
“We've had some challenges on the O-line,” Franklin said. “I wouldn't say it necessarily was just Paris, but just trying to move some parts around to try to get the best guys on the field and create better match-ups.”
A bigger one is coming up this weekend, for the team as a whole.
Or so it would appear.