College athletes are thrust into a massive media spotlight. Young men growing into 19- or 20-year-old bodies are asked to perform in front of 103,000 people on national television. Late in a season, with national or conference championships hanging in the balance, these young athletes are known to get nervous, or lose focus, or get complacent. In other words, they are young people and very human people. These aren’t character flaws, but they are part of learning how to handle pressure. Nothing is guaranteed.
This is why college sports in America are so fascinating. There isn’t a stone-cold terminator such as Tom Brady who will simply get the job done nearly every time. Each new batch of college athletes won’t be a fixture on the college scene for a long time. These athletes will be centerpieces of college football (or basketball) for three years at most, usually two.
The window of opportunity in which to make a lasting impression is very brief and therefore very precious.
Yeah, I know that if I was in the position these athletes inhabited, I would be VERY nervous myself.
All of this is a way of framing what we see most college football seasons, and what we saw this past weekend, as the 2019 season arrives at its final few showdowns: nerves and panic.
The Ohio State Buckeyes led the Penn State Nittany Lions 21-0 on their home field in Columbus, Ohio. Game over. Penn State gained under 70 yards in the first half and was blown off the field. Ohio State was roaring with brutal force against a plainly outclassed opponent. Penn State would have been lucky to score any points at all in this game.
Then came Penn State’s first touchdown drive of the day. Then came two Ohio State fumbles. Penn State scored 10 more points given two short-field drive starts. Suddenly, this non-game became a contest: Ohio State 21, Penn State 17. No one was laughing, not even the commentators who donned the headgear of the Ohio State mascot, Brutus Buckeye:
Ohio State has been a juggernaut the entire season. Yet — and this is part of what makes college football so fascinating — one bad game, one bad half, can ruin a season’s aspirations.
Had Ohio State lost to Penn State, it would have lost the Big Ten East Division to the Nittany Lions. (Technically, this wasn’t yet the case, but Penn State plays an awful Rutgers team next week, a virtual lock.) It therefore would have lost any chance to win the Big Ten Conference championship. Ohio State would have needed Penn State to lose in the upcoming Big Ten Championship Game on December 7 to have a realistic shot at the four-team College Football Playoff.
Chase Young with 16.5 sacks which makes him your Ohio State single season sack leader! pic.twitter.com/UsXO1OxpGF
— The Buckeye Nut (@TheBuckeyeNut) November 23, 2019
One bad half — one bad stretch of 30 minutes — can ruin a whole season. It happens every year in this sport.
Ohio State might have played like an elite team for 10 and a half games, and it might have been able to resume playing like a steamroller in its upcoming rivalry game against Michigan, but had OSU allowed this game against Penn State to slip away, several dreams would have died, and its ultimate goal would have been greatly imperiled.
When 19- and 20-year-olds contemplate this kind of pressure, they are tested in ways they have never been tested before.
Ohio State needed to halt its freefall. The Buckeyes did. They won 28-17, primarily because they stopped fumbling, and also because Chase Young of Ohio State is the nation’s best pass rusher.
Ohio State, however, wasn’t the only team to gain a 21-0 lead at home, in pursuit of the College Football Playoff, and very nearly throw the game — and the season — away.
Oklahoma, also chasing a playoff spot, led the TCU Horned Frogs 21-0 at home. TCU then scored the next 17 points, just as Penn State did against Ohio State.
In the photo just above, Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts — who fumbled just short of the goal line a week ago against Baylor — once again lost a fumble near the goal line against TCU. Hurts was also intercepted inside the TCU 10-yard line, with the Horned Frogs returning the pick 97 yards for a touchdown. Hurts’ lack of focus the past few weeks has turned games from comfortable (or at least, more manageable) situations into supremely stressful and complicated encounters for the Sooners.
Oklahoma’s defense — which did not show up in the team’s one loss this year to Kansas State, and which caved in at the end of a 42-41 win over Iowa State — saved Hurts and the OU offense. A late interception enabled the Sooners to stave off TCU’s rally, 28-24, keeping Oklahoma in the hunt for a playoff berth.
The one team in the playoff race which did not survive was Oregon.
The Ducks didn’t blow a lead. They were the team which tried to come back from a big deficit.
Oregon trailed Arizona State, 24-7, and looked sleepy. The Ducks were thoroughly outplayed. They were lucky to trail by “only” 17 points. When Oregon awakened and scored 14 quick points in the fourth quarter, the Ducks improved their chances of winning. However, they also showed how out of sync they had been in the first 3.5 quarters, in a game which meant everything for their season.
Yes, this is what the pressure of late-season college football can do — and has done — to many young athletes over the years.
Whereas Ohio State and Oklahoma were trying to prevent a total collapse on Saturday after leading by 21 points, Oregon was trying to undo in one fourth quarter what it had created in the first three: a royal mess. An epic comeback — rescuing a season which had been in peril — is the stuff of storybooks and feature documentaries which get remembered decades after the actual moment ends.
Oregon trips to the desert:
2019: CFP dreams die
2018: Blown out at UA 44-15
2017: #23 loses to ASU 37-35
2015: 3OT win vs ASU
2013: Blown out vs. UA 42-16
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) November 24, 2019
There is just one problem with creating a royal mess: EVERYTHING has to go right in the comeback attempt. One mistake can prove fatal.
A breakdown by Oregon’s secondary on third and 16, allowing a long-bomb Arizona State touchdown late in the fourth quarter, cooked the Ducks just days before America celebrates its version of Thanksgiving.
Oklahoma and Ohio State were thankful that Oregon couldn’t complete its comeback.
Was this an extraordinary day in college football history, you might ask?
By this sport’s standards, no — it was quite normal. Such is the charm of seeing 19- and 20-year-olds handle late-season Saturday pressure on the gridiron.