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Same Story, Different Year

Time after time, Penn State loses an untimely game against an inferior opponent to derail its own season.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I figured I’d be writing this a week from now, but here we are. Clemsoning, Sparty, No! Purdue Harbor, these are all* memes we grew to love due to the absurdity of how consistent, yet increasingly unlikely, the chances of them happening were. Let’s add “Penn State’s 2-loss Curse™” to the mix.

In James Franklin’s eight and a half seasons as coach of Penn State, he has failed to lose consecutive games exactly once: The fated 2016 season, where things seemed to fall right into place at the perfect time. Otherwise,

2014, an emotional loss to Ohio State was followed by a flat game against Maryland, which they lost.

2015**, another emotional loss to Northwestern was followed by three consecutive losses to end the year.

2017, the first of several gut wrenching losses to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions led for all but one minute of the game, only to see themselves lose. They lost to Michigan State the next week.

2018, the 4th and five game. The one that should have been in hand but wasn’t. Another loss to Michigan State followed, coming off a bye.

2019, the gut wrenching loss was to Minnesota this time, all but eliminating themselves out of playoff contention before the one against Ohio State was even played.

2020, the season-opening loss to Indiana was so shocking, it sent the team into a tailspin they wouldn’t get out of until the season was well out of hand.

And of course, 2021, the year it finally looked like everything was coming together, only to have it all derailed by a loss to Iowa that would lead to what is maybe the worst loss of them all.

Illinois may win a game or two moving forward, but it’s not likely they win more than that. Penn State was a decided favorite, at home, coming off a bye week where they could have prepared the team to simply keep the Illini at arm’s length. Instead, the Illini controlled the game from start to finish, and, if not for several turnovers, would have won this game going away.

I don’t know what it is about James Franklin and emotional losses, but after eight years, he still has not figured out how to get his team to move on from one, and play inspired football next time. Every single time it looks like the Nittany Lions have put it all together, they shoot themselves in the foot, look at the open wound, and decide that shooting themselves in the other foot is what will alleviate the previous injury.

Just like Clemson, just like Michigan State, just like Purdue’s victims, you can see the disappointment happening from a mile away. And now the hope is, as it always is, that this team can pick themselves off the ground and salvage whatever is left of this season.

The way the teams are playing, we know next week will be a loss. Does Penn State have enough in the tank to avoid two more losses, to the other two teams in the East that have yet to lose? Will they avoid losses to Rutgers and Maryland along the way? Will the players stop caring, now that they know the business will remain unfinished? Nobody knows. What we do know, however, is that next year, the year after, and the year after that, have their stories written already. Lose a game, and another one is coming.

We joke around these parts about finishing undefeated, but the way things are going, that’s the only possible pathway to Penn State reaching its goals. The only way to break the curse is to simply not lose. Because, as the past nine years have proven, the head coach simply doesn’t know how to get the team to not let one loss lead to two. And that’s unfortunate.***

*In the case of the latter, Purdue Harbor is what happens to aspiring championship teams (mostly Ohio State), instead of what happens to Purdue.
**One could say they didn’t follow the Ohio State loss with another one, but everyone knew they never had a chance in that game.
***No, I will not subject anyone to the torture of recapping this disaster on a quarter by quarter, and NINE overtime, basis.