ORLANDO, Fla. - The final seven minutes of Friday's Capital One Bowl made the next seven months remarkably easier for Penn State.
There will be no talk about how the Nittany Lions can't win a big game.
Or how the program can't stack up with elite competition.
Or how Southern speed is so much better than Northern brawn.
Or how Joe Paterno gets outcoached too often against outstanding teams.
Or how Daryll Clark's legacy was tainted because he never beat a marquee opponent.
No, things will be pretty sweet in the Nittany Nation for a while after the 19-17 win over LSU.
That's the way it goes after a quality bowl victory. The sense of accomplishment is so great that it carries over throughout the offseason.
All the players, coaches, administrators and fans feel so good about how the season ended that any little problems or questions that existed beforehand suddenly wash away.
Imagine if Clark and the offense had not marched downfield for a game-winning 21-yard kick by Collin Wagner. One neat thing about college football at the elite level is that, after every loss, it's like the world is coming to an end and people can't wait to gripe about any and all issues.
But after a win?
Everything is right in the world, of course.
So Penn State fans should enjoy the nice victory for the next seven months, until preseason camp starts. Bask in saying, "I told you so" to idiot reporters and friends who doubted your team by picking LSU, or questioned the lousy schedule and claimed it did not prepare the Lions for their toughest competition.
It's only one victory, and though it doesn't erase the sting of losing at home to Iowa and Ohio State, the timing certainly makes those two earlier disappointments more bearable.
Some closing thoughts on the season:
Team MVP: Clark - The guy has been an outstanding leader off the field and a very good player on it. He is one of the better quarterbacks in Penn State history. Not better than Kerry Collins. Not even top two or three. But worthy of top-five discussion. (Note: Collins, Milt Plum, Chuck Fusina, Todd Blackledge and Richie Lucas made up our top five when the Mirror did its Quarterback U project in August.)
Best offensive player: Clark
Best defensive player: Linebacker Navorro Bowman - Tackle Jared Odrick may have been the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and he was certainly a disruptive force who was difficult for opponents to game plan against. But Bowman was the most electrifying player on the defensive side and looked dominant most of the time.
Will Bowman be back?: No - The junior All-American will leave for the NFL.
Will Evan Royster be back?: A tough call, but the guess here is no. The junior running back won't be able to enhance his draft stock much next year, plus he knows the NFL may have a rookie salary cap in place beginning in 2011.
Team's biggest strength: Linebackers - Will people finally give Josh Hull a little credit? Doubtful, but he deserves it. He played his role well between Bowman and Sean Lee.
Team's biggest weakness: Special teams - Horrible. Just horrible.
Most improved player: Receiver Derek Moye - Led the team with 48 catches and 785 receiving yards. He looks like he'll be a good NFL wideout in a few years.
Biggest surprise: Receiver Graham Zug - The former walk-on was second on the team with 46 catches and led the squad with seven TD receptions.
Biggest disappointment: Receiver Brett Brackett - Most believed he would be a primary target, but he had only three catches for 13 yards.
He should have been better: Receiver Chaz Powell - He was expected to fill Derrick Williams' shoes and have a big year, but that was probably unfair and unrealistic. He was merely decent with 28 catches for 366 yards and three TDs to go along with nine carries for 76 yards.
Best bounce-back year: Tight end Andrew Quarless - He's a gifted receiver who finished third on the team with 41 catches.
Best coaching move: Throwing to Quarless more. He had only 46 catches his first three seasons.
Worst coaching move: Not getting backup quarterback Kevin Newsome more experience. This will hurt the team in a big way next season.
What are they thinking?: The coaches' decision to basically give up trying to make any kind of impact on punt returns. The philosophy is mind-boggling. It's an important part of the game, and PSU treats it like it's a burden.
Looking ahead to 2010: It will be a rebuilding year with a new quarterback, so don't expect great things. The Lions will get thumped at (probable defending national champ) Alabama in week two and lose at Iowa in the Big Ten opener in week five. A loss at Ohio State in week 10 is a given. There likely will be at least one more loss somewhere, so the prediction here is an 8-4 regular season and trip to the Outback Bowl.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and email@example.com.