This has been a tough week for the Penn State football program, and from a humanity standpoint, it would be understandable if everyone is having a hard time fully focusing on the singular task at hand of playing football.
When you get the kick-in-the-gut news involving the end of Journey Brown’s football career, emotions surely have been running in all sorts of directions.
But you know what? The Nittany Lions have to play a football game in less than two days, and there’s no denying that it is a big game.
Not necessarily a big game in terms of championships or anything, but a big game because a loss would mean extending this disastrous start to the season out to 0-4.
Penn State had better show up ready to play, something it absolutely did not do during last week’s embarrassing 35-19 loss to Maryland.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers will not care what the Lions have been through this week. They’ve got a world of problems of their own, and they’re not gonna be feeling sorry when Penn State rolls into town.
That’s just reality. Because in football, once the ball is kicked off, your job is to knock the hell out of the other guy, impose your will, inflict pain.
That’s the name of the game in sports. It sucks sometimes to have to be so cut and dried about it — especially in light of the real-world problems we are facing in society and that Brown now faces in his life — but that’s just how things are.
These players understand. That’s what they signed up for. You’ll hear player after player say things like, “That’s why I came to Penn State” — to play in big games.
Granted, this bizarre year has changed our perspectives on so many things. And these college football players have been through so much turmoil and adversity that, again, it would be completely understandable if their hearts and minds just are not 100 percent invested in an early game in Lincoln, Neb., this week in particular.
But that’s the job.
That’s what they have to do.
Because if Penn State goes out and loses to the Huskers, the fan base won’t be showing much mercy Saturday night and into Sunday.
Is that fair? Is that how it should be?
But I’ll guarantee that’s how things will play out if Penn State loses.
There will be more cries for James Franklin’s job — which are ridiculous, to be sure, but exist anyway — and more cries for the team to make major changes, such as switching quarterbacks.
One reason the 2012 Penn State team is so revered that it’s considered legendary is that the young men on that team handled adversity incredibly well. They handled the adversity better, in fact, than so many of the adults who were charged with leading Penn State University during the scandal.
This year’s team is having to deal with terrible adversity of a much different variety. The players expected for this team to be really good and to compete for a College Football Playoff berth.
All major goals are now gone. Three of the team’s best players — Micah Parsons, Journey Brown and Noah Cain — are not playing for various reasons.
The outside world is questioning the team’s heart. Its desire. Its culture.
We’re hearing internal complaints the likes of which we haven’t heard in a long, long time in Happy Valley.
All of that was present before we got the news about Journey Brown.
All of those questions will still exist even after the sad news, too.
Major college football is an unforgiving machine, where people don’t care if you’ve had a bad day or bad week or bad month.
It’s about winning for most people. Regardless.
To that end, let me say this: I fully expect the Lions to go out to Nebraska and put up a good showing. They’ll play better in all phases and show a lot of heart and character.
Because that’s usually, despite anything else, what we’ve always come to expect from the Penn State football program.
I initially was going to pick PSU to lose this game by a point or two. But I believe the players and coaches will rally together in such a way to pay respect to Journey Brown that they’ll be inspired, start fast, play well and get out of town with a victory.
The Lions have a chance to change the narrative of this season, and it starts Saturday.
We’ll see if they’re ready — physically and emotionally — to do so.