Coming off of back to back Rose Bowl and Fiesta Bowl games, expectations for the Nittany Lions were high in 2018. But was that fair? On the bright side, they had a senior leader in Trace McSorley, an experienced returning offensive line, some bright spots throughout the rest of the lineup and a very strong incoming class.
Of course, everyone talked about the losses in personnel. How can you not when you have this group. Several are seeing significant playing time on Sunday – especially the offensive skill players like NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite Saquon Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki, and wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall.
On defense, losses include NFLers Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Troy Apke and Jason Cabinda. On top of that, many others are on the fringe of NFL rosters, in particular, placekicker, Tyler Davis.
What many underestimated, however, was the impact of the coaching changes. OC Joe Moorhead left for the Head Coaching position at Mississippi State – taking RB/Special Teams Coach Charles Huff with him and that set off a few changes.
To counter these losses, Ricky Rahne was moved from QB/TE coach to OC – taking over for Moorhead, Phil Galiano was brought in to replace Charles Huff on Special Teams and Tyler Bowen was hired to replace Rahne’s TE responsibilities.
Shortly after these changes were announced, David Corley was hired to take over Huff’s RB duties. Then, a week later, WR Coach Josh Gattis fled to Alabama, presumably not happy with the changes. The following week, Ja’Juan Seider was hired. Franklin decided to give him RBs and move Corley to WRs. Many raised their eyebrows considering Corley came from Army – who had averaged just five passing attempts per game in 2017.
It’s widely agreed that this years team suffered in two specific areas – the receiving corps and special teams. It seems clear now that the combination of lost talent, including four NFL receivers and the placekicker, coupled with the coaching changes was just too much to overcome.
But I digress… Overall, a 9-4 year is solid. Sure I want a National Championship every year, but so does every other major team in college football. But how many fan bases can actually say they have a legitimate shot at a championship every year? I’m confident that we have a chance – every year.
On to the trip…
Our first visit to the Citrus Bowl was 25 years ago for the Penn State vs Tennessee game, which the Lions won convincingly, 31-13. Living in Arizona now, we weren’t expecting to travel to Orlando for this game, but things started to come together just a week or two ago. Let’s just say I considered changing the name of the blog to “The Frugal Spectator”. By getting creative and taking some risks, we were able to make the trip very affordable.
Packing for a game in Florida is infinitely easier, and lighter, than packing for a game in State College. Blue for pre and post game days and white for gameday!
After landing in Orlando on New Year’s Eve at about 4pm, we bolted straight for the Pep Rally, knowing that we’d only be able to catch the tail end if we were lucky. Unfortunately, our flight was a little late and we just missed the gathering at Pointe Orlando. We did, however, have just enough time to snap this photo as they were literally grabbing the trophy to take it away.
Little did we know that both Penn State and Kentucky were both hosting Pep Rallies in the same mall area at the same time. It sure made for some congestion, but it added to the festive environment.
We decided to grab an early dinner at the Pointe considering the numerous options, but we quickly learned that with thousands of fans just being released from the Pep Rallies, coupled with the fact that it’s NYE, we’d need to be very lucky to secure a spot without reservations. Fortunately, we had perfect timing and grabbed some seats at the bar at Marlow’s Tavern, a regional chain. After a couple of Yuenglings and some quality eats, we were good for the night.
Just after dinner, our daughter got called to work at the team hotel which was located a short walk from the Pointe. We sat at the hotel bar with a couple of drinks while she did her duties.
The hotel was hopping with Penn State players, coaches, families and fans. As we sat and “people-watched”, we were amazed just thinking that these are all just 18 to 22-year-old kids. Just normal kids. Hanging with their parents and friends. Many fans approached with footballs and markers in hand to secure autographs. We overheard some looking at the wet signature, then asking each other, “who was that”?
We recognized several players, but clearly not all. One in particular was Sean Clifford. I thought to myself, with Tommy Stevens out after having surgery, Clifford could be thrown into the spotlight tomorrow – so I had to grab an inconspicuous pic as he chatted with some “fans”.
Lingering around were coaches like Matt Limegrover and Terry Smith. We even saw the executive branch of President Eric Barron, AD, Sandy Barbour and Chief of Staff Jemal Griffin pass by. Then, after our daughter had just finished and joined us, radio personalities Jack Ham and Steve Jones passed by with Jones stopping to say hello. We’re guessing he recognized us from a previous introduction to him. When he saw Jessica, he had an enthusiastic hello and hug for her.
We checked into our room by Sea World just in time to catch the fireworks from our room before turning in for an early wakeup call. No, we didn’t get room 409, but I just had to take a picture.
The Central Florida Penn State Alumni Chapter hosted a tailgate not far from the stadium. My brother-in-law and his wife joined us for the pregame party. I will say, this group sure knows how to throw a tailgate! Over 900 people were expected and it went off without a hitch. BBQ buffet, beer (plenty of Yuengling), water and soda – and they didn’t run out of anything! The DJ was awesome – mixing in some Beaver Stadium staples.
Of course, there’s always some Fireball at a tailgate – and we celebrated with our new friends.
As with all great tailgates, there never seems to be enough time. Thankfully, we didn’t have to clean up after this one, so it was an easy exit to get the stadium with plenty of time to spare.
No flyover like the Rose Bowl, but the flag covering the field during the National Anthem is one of my favorite moments of pregame.
And of course, the Blimp was hovering high above. I can’t wait to watch the game at home if for no other reason than to see the overhead shots from the dirigible.
We were pretty happy with our seats. We always want to be up top, but a little closer to the 50 would have been better, but for Bowl games including Penn State and a Kentucky fan base that hadn’t seen a 10-win season in over 40 years, tickets were at a premium. When checking StubHub, the Citrus Bowl was one of the few games that actually increased in price from the time of announcement until kickoff.
The Lions came out flat. After a three and out, a botched fake punt gave the Cats a short field that resulted in a FG. Then after another three and out, the Lions were able to put together a short drive, set up by a 71-yard field-position changing punt, that ended in a missed FG.
After yet another three and out, Kentucky returned a punt for a TD. Before you knew it, it was 10-0 and the Lions were sleepwalking.
Finally, Penn State responded with a quick drive sparked by a KJ Hamler 41-yard reception down to the 1. You know KJ was ticked he got caught, but Nick Bowers bailed him out by hauling in a McSorley pass for TD cutting the lead to 10-7 – a score that would hold until the half due to a Josh Allen blocked FG attempt from 36 yards out. Allen is the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and had a monster game against the Lions.
The scorching heat forced us to leave our seats in the sun for most of halftime but we did catch the Blue Band for a bit. Interestingly enough, Camping World Stadium was recently renovated and they must have made restrooms a priority. Even during halftime, there were no lines – for men or women – quite a difference from Beaver Stadium.
The opening of the 2nd half didn’t bring much promise. Since Franklin chose to receive the opening kickoff, it was Kentucky’s turn to get the ball. Our kick went out of bounds, setting up the Cats at their 35. Benny Snell Jr., an outstanding back for Kentucky burst through for a quick 32 yards and the crowd was pumped. A targeting call later in the drive helped set up the Cats for Snell’s first TD run. 17-7.
Then, nearly every Penn State fan got a gut punch. Sean Clifford came into the game. We knew McSorley went down late in the first half with an injury, but he came back into the game. Now, after halftime, with backup Tommy Stevens not available, the third-string QB was forced to play. Clifford’s no slouch, coming into the game 5-for-5 on the season for 195 yards and two TDs, including a Penn State record 95-yarder, but he clearly doesn’t have the experience of Trace. Speculation swirled.
After one first down, Penn State was forced to punt it back to Kentucky – and they maintained a 6-minute drive that ended in another FG. 20-7. Ugh.
McSorley re-entered the game, but promptly threw an interception that, in just two plays, the Cats converted into Snell’s second TD on the day and set the record for career rushing at Kentucky. 27-7.
Still, there was optimism. I even leaned over to the Alabama fans sitting next to me and said, “I like 28-27”. Sure enough, Trace led the team to a quick score to cut the lead to 27-14. You could feel the energy coming back – and the Kentucky fans around us started staying, “See, it’s not over yet. These guys are good”.
The defense finally got a 3-out and Trace did it again – a six-play, 2-1/2 minute drive to get it to 27-21 with 9:00 to play.
Then, the Defense responds again! Three and out! Trace leads them down, but now a critical decision. Fourth and seven from the 14 with three TOs in their pocket. Franklin opts for the FG to inch closer – betting that his defense can do it one more time. 4:12 to play, 27-24.
It wasn’t meant to be. Snell carried the ball eight straight times! Yes, 8! We burned all of our TOs, leaving just one second on the clock after we finally stopped them and forced them to punt. A fumble on a trick play ended the game, 27-24.
It was incredibly somber, but not devastating. This Kentucky team played their hearts out led by two guys who will be playing on Sundays – Snell, and Allen. This was their year. They caught us in a transition and made the best of it.
I will say, the Kentucky fans we met were all first class. No trash-talking, unless you consider the S-E-C chant trash-talking… Congratulations on a great year and I can’t wait to see Benny and two Josh Allens on Sundays (the Bills’ QB Josh Allen is pretty good too).
Immediately after the game (and probably during for that matter), fans blasted and questioned some of the players and coaches. What they fail to comprehend is that these are people who are learning and growing. Some of them young kids. It’s easy to criticize and hindsight is 20/20. There are thousands of decisions that Coach Franklin makes every game that go unnoticed only because you agree with them or they worked – like the 3rd and 10 run by Sanders. Conventional wisdom is the general rule, but it doesn’t always win football games. But as they say, no easy decision ever gets to the President’s desk. As long as Coach Franklin continues to develop players into men of character both on and off the field, he has my support. Tough loss, but the future is bright!
On Wednesday, we explored The Villages, where my brother-in-law and his wife live. This place is pretty unique. It’s a massive Master Planned Retirement Community about 75 minutes north of Orlando with over 125,000 residents. With 648 holes of golf throughout The Villages, it’s easy to see why the preferred mode of transportation is by golf cart.
And you can’t just have any standard golf cart. Only custom tricked out golf carts will do. We saw several varieties, but those that jumped out at us were those usually dressed up with their favorite teams.
When people come to visit us in the desert, they always ask if we ever see scorpions. I’m pretty sure, when people visit Florida, they ask if you’ve ever seen a gator.
After a long couple of days, it was back home to reflect on the season. This game wrapped up a decent year for Penn State and a great four year run while my daughter was a student at Main Campus. We were fortunate to attend several home games, including three Whiteouts and two Stripeouts; a B1G Championship; three away games at Pitt, Ohio State, and Indiana; and three bowls including the Citrus, Fiesta and Rose all while she was a student.
Next year, we intend to start a multi-year quest to visit all B1G stadiums!