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Saturday, October 23, 2021, was supposed to be a day of celebration in Happy Valley. Homecoming Weekend and the alumni were back in town to visit their old stomping grounds and cheer on their alma mater. The football team was coming off a much-needed bye week after losing a heartbreaker to the Iowa Hawkeyes despite looking like the better team before their starting quarterback, Sean Clifford, got hurt. With a potential marquee, Top 10 match-up with Ohio State looming the night before Halloween, all Penn State had to do was take care of business against arguably the worst team in the Big Ten: Illinois. And then Saturday happened...
The prognosticators in Las Vegas favored Penn State by 24 points. I knew that line was too high since it was a question mark whether Sean Clifford would play or not after his injury against Iowa. But even without Clifford playing, this game really should not have been close. On paper, Penn State was the better, more talented team in just about every aspect. But, of course, as the old saying goes, that's why they play the game.
Penn State jumped out to an early 10-0 lead and took a 10-7 lead into halftime. However, there were warning signs throughout the first half that something was amiss. What to this point had been a stout run defense allowed Illinois to run the ball at will. But we are talking about #7 Penn State against Illinois; they'll adjust at halftime and walk away at the end, right? Wrong. In a game where Penn State needed to stop the run and force Illinois quarterback Art Sitkowski (who lost the starting job at Rutgers) to throw the ball, Penn State instead allowed Chase Brown and Joshua McCray to combine for 356 rushing yards. However, true to their form all year, the Penn State defense did manage to keep Illinois out of the endzone most of the afternoon, thanks in part to their ability to generate three turnovers.
Sadly, the offense did little to help the defense out. As a surprise, Sean Clifford started the game after spending the second half of the Iowa game on the sideline in street clothes. I would have preferred one of the back-ups to get the start. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I could not watch much of the game on television and instead listened to the radio feed. From the comments of the radio broadcasters, it was clear Clifford's injury limited his performance - despite his claims to the contrary ($). On the call, there were numerous times where Clifford escaped the rush, but instead of taking off running down the field like he usually would, he would either give himself up or look to force a ball into a small window for an incompletion. Add to this that the Nittany Lions continued to be completely unable to run the ball with their running backs, and suddenly Penn State's offense was utterly one-dimensional. To their credit, Illinois took that one dimension - the explosive deep passing play - away. All this added up to Penn State allowing Illinois to hang around and force overtime.
In the first two overtime periods, Illinois and Penn State traded field goals, as Penn State once again could not find the end zone and had a defender drop a game-winning interception. The two teams then moved into the new NCAA overtime rules and went started trading two-point conversion attempts. The new overtime format laid bare the painful struggles of Penn State in short-yardage situations. Faced with nine opportunities to punch the ball in from just three yards out, Penn State converted once. The result?
Photo Credit: Heather Weikel; Black Shoe Diaries
Since Saturday, there have been plenty of opinions where the blame should lie for this game. This game is the latest in a pattern of team performances since James Franklin arrived on campus. The team performs well early on, but once they lose, you can almost guarantee they will fail again, probably the next game. From a Penn State fan perspective, it is incredibly frustrating to feel like we keep approaching the precipice of college football glory, only to stub our toe against inferior competition. Justifiably, some fans are getting fed up and will not necessarily be upset if Franklin leaves in the offseason for another job. I am not there yet.
Is this loss incredibly upsetting and frustrating? Yes. This team came into the year returning almost all of their offensive lineman and were supposed to have one of the deepest running back rooms in the Big Ten. Yet, somehow, the team is entirely unable to generate any running game to allow them salt games away. It has now cost them two very winnable games, and the schedule only gets tougher from here. The Illinois loss effectively eliminates Penn State from the College Football Playoff in a year when, with all the chaos around the sport, it looked like Penn State had a real shot. Maybe "frustrating" is not a strong enough word. But the idea that Penn State should possibly move on from Franklin is exceptionally short-sighted in my view.
Since his arrival, the standard at Penn State has elevated to a new level. Is Penn State on the level of Alabama or Ohio State? Pretty clearly not. But that gap is closing every year. Of course, some fans do not want to hear about "recruitment rankings" and only want to talk about titles won (or lack of titles won). But really, my take is the expectation of winning Big Ten or National championships is proof that Franklin is doing things right. Before Franklin's arrival, Penn State reliably won 8-9 games a year, and every five to six years got a generational talent to come to Happy Valley, and they could challenge for a Big Ten title or more. Now, the team is winning a lot more and recruiting on a higher level, so that a nine-win season is a minimum expectation and a challenge for the conference, and the College Football Playoff is the goal. So I share in the frustrations at the loss of the Illinois game, but I still implore my fellow Penn Staters to realize how good we have it right now. After all, what's the alternative - being Texas or USC? No thanks.