If you're a Penn State fan, it's probably hard to know how to truly feel about your team at the moment.
Allen Robinson's up-and-down day against Virginia epitomized his team's performance.
On the one hand, you have to love the loyalty and devotion and heart the players who stayed through the all of the turmoil have exhibited and continue to exhibit; it's an easy team to root for. On the other, the way a lot of them are playing, and the fact that the Nittany Lions have squandered chances to beat two not overly impressive opponents, has to drive you a little crazy. Maybe even crazy enough to change the channel.
But it goes a lot further than that. Due to graduation and the sanctions and more than a few curious decisions on the recruiting trail the last few seasons by the previous staff, this team had some serious limitations when the season began. A few early injuries have added to that list. Each of the first eight quarters of the season has brought a few more of these limitations into focus.
Still, there are signs of daylight that are breaking through the clouds. The offense, which lost its best offensive tackle to an injury for much of the game and its starting tailback for the final quarter and had its quarterback playing through an elbow injury, strung together five drives of 11 plays or longer against a not-great but solid Virginia defense. Meanwhile, a Penn State defense that had fallen entirely apart in the second half the week before gave up a long scoring drive to start Saturday's second half, then held the Cavaliers to minus-9 yards in 13 plays over the next four possessions combined.
Allen Robinson dropped a touchdown pass, then caught one. The offense moved the ball with ease between the 20s but struggled to get out of first gear when its defense set it up inside the Virginia 30. Time and again, the defense forced Virginia into third-and-forever -- then allowed the Cavaliers to pick up forever and a few more yards.
Sam Ficken? Let's just say we'll file Penn State's field-goal kicking under the "limitations" category and try to appreciate the number of occasions Bill O'Brien will leave his offense on the field on fourth down this fall (the Nittany Lions are now 5-of-7 on fourth down this season).
The point is, there's a lot there to build on. There's also a lot to work on -- namely, executing in the clutch. Last week, Penn State's coaches let the players down. This week, the coaches -- and several determined veterans like Matt McGloin, Jordan Hill and Michael Mauti -- put the Nittany Lions in position to win. The coaches couldn't make the field goals or knock down Michael Rocco's 40-yard, cross-field heave to Jake McGee.
"We've just got to execute when it's time to execute. Make a play when it's time to make a play," Mauti said. "That's what it comes down to."
The defense, for the first time this season, looked like the Penn State defenses of old, forcing four turnovers, breaking down the pocket and thumping ball carriers all over the field. But it doesn't do the defense much good to manhandle an offense on first and second down if it's going to implode on third down. Penn State opponents have now faced 20 third downs in the second half and have successfully converted on 18 of those occasions.
And if the offense is going to stall in the red zone -- Ficken can't miss field goals if his teammates are scoring touchdowns -- it doesn't matter how good the Nittany Lions look getting there.
"When we’re deep in the red zone, we have to come up with touchdowns," Robinson said.
Maybe the players know the limitations of this team and maybe they don't. What they do know is that they're capable of better overall performances, even with those limitations, than they've shown the first two weeks. They know there's a lot to like about this team, but also that there are only so many more chances to show that while cleaning up the various things there are to not like about it.
"We’re not going to accept this loss. We’re not going to accept losing," right tackle Mike Farrell said. "The attitude we come in with this Monday is going to echo what it’s been all along, through ups and downs, bad breaks, tough breaks, not-fair breaks. We will definitely move forward with that in mind."
Penn State did move forward in many ways on Saturday. It would have been nice to have a win to show for it, though.