In what is becoming my least favorite tradition of the year, Penn State once again fell to Ohio State.
Despite a 13-point deficit, let’s be honest: the game wasn’t that close. Jahan Dotson did his best to keep it close — hauling in eight receptions for 144 yards and three touchdowns in a true breakout performance — but there was never a point in Saturday’s game where it felt like the Buckeyes were challenged by Penn State. The opening drive for the Buckeyes set the tone: three plays, 75 yards, 1:17, and little resistance. From there, it was obvious how the game was going to play out.
That hurts, especially when considering the path the Nittany Lions have been on. In 2018, Penn State was up 26-14 over Ohio State with 8 minutes left. As you know, the Nittany Lions squandered the lead away, and it led to an impassioned speech from James Franklin after; in so many words, saying that Penn State would take that next step from “great” to “elite.”
Since then, Penn State is 16-7, now including two additional losses to Ohio State teams that are led by a one-time Nittany Lion commit. Taking that “next step” hasn’t happened — in fact, the gap between the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions has gotten wider. Which perhaps says more about where Ohio State is at than it does Penn State. Along with Clemson, the Buckeyes have essentially reached the point where you can pencil them into the College Football Playoff every season. They lost one of the greatest college football coaches of all-time in Urban Meyer, and yet, are playing better and recruiting just as well. No chinks in the armor in Columbus.
Despite the Buckeyes success, many Penn State fans had hoped that 2020 would be the year where the Nittany Lions would get over the Scarlet and Grey hump, and would seal their invitation to the College Football Playoff. This team was legitimately getting Top 5 hype heading into spring practices.
Instead, COVID-19 cancelled all spring practices for the Nittany Lions. Micah Parsons decided to sit out the season. The season was actually cancelled, but then restarted — with the Ohio State game moving from Week 8 to Week 2. No Whiteout. Journey Brown had to sit out the season due to health issues. Noah Cain injured himself on the opening drive of the season.
This isn’t to make excuses. Even in a normal world, it’s probably likely that Ohio State still takes down Penn State — have an uber-elite quarterback like Justin Fields is a pretty nice trump card. But man, Saturday night was not the atmosphere or the once-hyped team led by a dominant rushing attack and the best defensive player in college football that Penn State fans expected when January 1, 2020 hit.
I think that’s what makes things even more frustrating, for me at least: that didn’t feel like Penn State’s best shot. As much as it sucks, I can take losses in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Devastating in their own right? Absolutely. But it at least felt like the Nittany Lions came out with a purpose and went out on their shield — I can’t say the same for Saturday night.
For Penn State and James Franklin, it’s now about righting the ship. An 0-2 start has led to more questions than answers. Questions about Sean Clifford. Questions about the coaching staff. Questions about if this program is good enough to get where they want to be. For better or worse, we’ll find out the answers over the next seven games.