Aug 6, 2012; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien speaks with members of the media following the first day of practice at the Lasch Football Building practice fields. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-US PRESSWIRE
Things weren't supposed to be this bad this quick, though they never are. Penn State as a university, athletic department, and football program has had a rough year in the wake of all that has happened, but the 2012 version of the team was supposed to make it out okay. There were the transfers before the season, but this is still for the most part a Penn State roster, and with that comes some idea of stability. It was this that saved the team last year in the wake of one of the worst offensive performances in the country. It was still a Penn State Defense. That was enough.
Michigan fans know it well, the depths that a team can sink to overnight, the way the realization creeps in slowly as you watch for a few weeks and try to explain it away. This particular Nittany Lion season might not be heading for a similar cliff, but it would be impossible to know either way. That's the funny thing about cliffs: they look like any other line on the horizon until its nearly too late to stop.
The Penn State offense lost its only reliable cog when Silas Redd transferred, and now the defense is showing signs of stress under the mounting pressure. After giving up just shy of 500 yards in the opener to Ohio, the worry is beginning to seep in. Penn State may not be able to muster the kind of defensive effort to keep the ship afloat as the holes on the roster loom larger and the offense continues to flatline. What then? What happens if the road trip to Virginia goes wrong this week? What about struggles against Navy and Temple? What is the worst case scenario?
Rock bottom is still a ways off. Next winter will see more players depart as the roster limits set in and recruits begin to look elsewhere. The level of competitiveness that this team is capable of reaching will drop further and further until the only thing separating the Nittany Lions from any other MAC team will be the B10 logo painted on the field and a helmet with half a decade of tainted history. The product of an NCAA death penalty by another name.
For now the only thing to try to do is stave off the thoughts of the inevitable decline. To hold out for hope in the only place it is left -- on the football field -- while ignoring the darkness on the horizon. There is nothing to do but to keep barreling forward. Keep showing up for the games and cheering hard for the team on the field. What is left of a Penn State roster before those words mean something else entirely.. All the while hoping to win a few more games -- and to see the cliff just in time to brace for the fall.
After all, it's a long way to the bottom.