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The SportsTalk Shop: Penn State and PIAA Recaps

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I’d like to think we have “fireworks” on every edition of the “RCN SportsTalk” show in which we discuss a variety of different topics–sometimes of a controversial nature.  On last week’s program, however, we had not one, but two major blow-ups from both our panelists and from our phone callers, regarding two completely different subjects.  The two topics firing up people included our assessment of Penn State’s football season and a few questionable calls at the end of the PIAA state playoff game between St. Joe’s and Parkland high schools.  Here are two clips, back-to-back from last week’s show, which ignited the controversies.

Now, regarding the Penn State issue of which all of us on the show agreed that the Lions’ 6-6 record should be viewed as a “successful” year (the officials made sure they didn’t win a 7th game with a couple egregious calls late in their game against Ohio State).   Shortly after we made those statements, one of our phone callers, in no uncertain terms, blasted our opinions—stating that six wins against a handful of soft opponents should not garnish a positive review.  Furthermore, the caller stated that Penn State hasn’t beaten a top- five team in nearly thirty years and the team’s true “glory years” vanished in the 1980s.  He went on to criticize their scheduling several weaker non-conference games each season.

Here’s my take on issue #1.  When you consider what the Nittany Lions program has gone through over the last four years, you’d have to be happy with six wins and a bowl bid.  There’s no way to officially say how many quality football players the scandal has cost the program.  In addition to players who left or decided on another school, you had players like Mike Hull, Christian Hackenberg and others who rode out the sanctions having to deal with depth issues throughout their careers.  Players fought through and played with injuries because of that lack of depth, an inconsistent offensive line that put Hackenberg and other backs constantly under pressure from opposing defense…I could go on stating the trickle-down effects that permeated every facet of the team.  They were close to winning a few of their games against tougher opponents while soundly defeating programs that, as of this year, are step below Penn State (yes, I would have to thrown in my beloved Temple football team in this category).

Among many post-regular season accolades include Hull being named the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and both Hull and Anthony Zettel named to the conference’s “first team.”  There were certainly success stories with the younger players on the team, and reason for even more optimism based on their “successful” play this fall.  Among the first-year players just named to BTN.com’s “All-Freshmen Team”: safety Marcus Allen, tight end Mike Gesicki, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, offensive tackle Andrew Nelson and punter Daniel Pasquariello.  Despite the offensive struggles later in the year, all of these players improved as the season advanced and should be part of bigger and better things as the program continues to build itself back to a national presence.

To the issue of Penn State scheduling weaker teams: Penn State almost every year has to schedule at least seven home games to defray their enormous costs (this is due to budget issues which Morning Call’s Mark Wogenrich eluded to on our show).  Aside from the four Big Ten games that they must play, it’s pretty much impossible for one elite team—let along two or three additional teams–to grant an enormous (and costly) favor of playing the Lions at State College without having them return the favor the following season.  Penn State has to find up-and-coming programs (like my alums from Broad Street) to travel to Happy Valley to gain exposure.  These teams don’t match the status of a powerhouse team—one who, if Penn State defeated, would satisfy some fans’ requirement to call the season a success.  In my opinion, and with all the other issues Penn State is trying to put behind them, to expect something far beyond what happened this fall won’t be a possibility until 2016 at the earliest.  Until then, you must temper your expectations for the football program and give them props when they do make strides—like I still feel they made in 2014.

The second issue that fueled a heated argument on last week’s show involved a few controversial calls at the end of the Parkland/St. Joe’s state high school playoff football game.   I myself was at another game that day and did not watch it live—and instead received a biased review of the calls well before I had a chance to sit down and watch a replay of it for myself through RCN On Demand.  I must admit that I agree with all of our RCN commentators –  Gary Laubach, Mike Joseph, Tony Cocca and “SportsTalk” co-host Joe Craig—all vehemently saying on-air that they hated (and that’s using a ‘kind’ verb) the calls.  Clearly, the officials made a few incorrect decisions at crucial times.  However, I would like to address an aspect of this controversy that I haven’t heard anyone talk about since the program.

I think an enormous amount of credit should be given to Parkland for the class they demonstrated with regards to the controversial calls—all of which severely hampered them from winning the game. Head Coach Jim Morgans was furious with the calls and expressed his disappointment after they occurred.  But I’ve run into a number of coaches—both past and present—who admitted they probably would have gone ballistic if they were on that sideline and had those calls made against them at key moments in a huge game.  If Parkland won that game, it would have been an historic victory for the District XI football community.  It would have kept alive the team’s drive for a state championship.  But even with an extreme level of disappointment following the calls, the players, coaches and staff all handled themselves in a respectful manner.

There was no formal protest.  No website created to replay the controversial calls and ask people for their opinions.  No continuing, angry sound bites in the local media.  They were upset.  They were angry…but they kept themselves under control.

Clearly, they would have preferred to win the game and advance to the state semifinal game.  But all things considered, Parkland had an excellent season on the field, and showed championship-level class in the days that followed an incredibly  disappointing, and unfortunate, loss.  But one of the great things about sports is the character-building aspect that can be an even better learning experience.

What are your thoughts on Penn State’s season and the PIAA playoffs? Email your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us each Thursday at 6pm as we discuss more hot topics each week!