What was that?
I mean, seriously, what was that??
During the nearly three decades of following Penn State Football, Saturday’s 20-18 setback against Illinois was the most baffling.
There have been a long list of painful losses along the way, that hurt for any number of reasons. There was the hair-pulling frustration of the 6-4 loss to Iowa in ‘04. There was the crashing back to reality after seeing a 12-game win streak and national title hopes evaporate against Michigan in ‘97. Michigan again stole those hopes with just :01 on the clock in ‘05. There have been games where the Nittany Lions seemed to have won on the field, only to see the refs take it away - ‘13 Nebraska, ‘02 Michigan and Iowa, ‘14 Ohio State immediately jump to mind. There was the shocker to Ohio University to kick off the Bill O’Brien era, as well as that afternoon when Toledo came to town and beat the pants off the Nittany Lions all afternoon long. There was the OG Homecoming debacle to Illinois in ‘10. There were massive, progrram-defining games that slipped through their hands, as recently witnessed with the Rose Bowl against USC, and those excruciating back-to-back losses against Ohio State in ‘17 and ‘18. Then there was the bang-your-head-against-a-wall loss to Indiana and losses to bad Maryland and Nebraska teams to launch an 0-5 start.
All of those loses lingered in the pit of our stomachs. But they all had at least some earthly rationale behind them. Some were the result of circumstances, like scholarship restrictions or a rash of injuries. Some were caused by just not being the better team, but at least helped find weaknesses to be addressed. Sometimes there were poor starts that proved fatal, and sometimes there are just those games when all the breaks go the other way.
The loss against Illinois had none of those - or for that matter, any possible explanation or excuse. Despite coming off a loss, the Nittany Lions held their destiny in their hands - survive the East Division round-robin - which at the team, all seemed winnable — win in Indianapolis, and celebrate a conference crown and a program-defining playoff berth.
Penn State couldn’t even make it to the first opponent in the would-be round-robin. Instead, they laid an egg against what appeared to be the Big Ten’s worst team.
Illinois came in with a 2-5 record after holding on to upset Nebraska in week 0, as well as 38-31 against Charlotte. Outside of their two victories, there was a blowout loss against Virginia, a home loss to Texas San-Antonio, and were coming off a 24-0 defeat at the hands of a subpar Wisconsin team.
They looked even worse on film and the stat sheet. They came into the game with a national tank of 117 in total offense, 120 in scoring offense, and 122 in passing offense. Things weren’t much better on the other side of the ball either, coming in at 101 in total defense, 107 in passing defense, and 87 in rushing defense. Yet somehow, Illinois ran out on the Beaver Stadium turf and outplayed and outworked the Nittany Lions on both sides of the ball.
The Illini had virtually no passing game and only one receiver with a hint of playmaking ability, making it transparent they would be forced to run to have any chance of moving the ball on Saturday. Penn State would simply pin its ears back, attack the line of scrimmage and force punt after punt. Instead, the Nittany Lions gave up 354 yards on the ground, the third highest single-game amount in the past quarter-century.
The defense that swarmed to the ball and had the attitude to relentlessly get in the opponents face for 60 minutes was nowhere to be found. Illinois would be the aggressor instead. Everyone knew what was coming when the Illini had the ball. Yet, they were able to line up and push the defense around anyways.
Then there’s the quarterback situation. The coaching staff made the decision to go with a severely limited Sean Clifford above one of the two healthy scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. The offensive attack was toothless without Clifford’s ability to run or throw the ball downfield. It made things easy for a poor Illinois defense that knew exactly what to defend this version of the Nittany Lions offense. Things have to look bleak when they went in with this plan — especially knowing one hit could easily keep Clifford out of the Ohio State game next week, when it appeared the season would be on the line.
You can’t fault anyone for Will Levis’ departure. He took the opportunity to start elsewhere, and it proved to be the right decision for him. But what does it say when the team is so uncomfortable going with a quarterback in his third year with the program against a 2-5 team that they feel their best hope is a hobbled Clifford? This wasn’t Ohio State or even Michigan when you need to keep your best players on the field. This was the type of game that should have been won with Clifford on the sideline.
How about turning to the run game then? Well, Penn State couldn’t get that going either against the aforementioned 87th best running game in the nation. They failed to do this behind an offensive line that is made up of four and five-star players with several years of experience under their belts. It’s a running theme that all this talent, depth and experience somehow just leads to a below-average offensive line each season.
Sure, Penn State is very likely undefeated and we’re having a completely different conversation with a healthy Sean Clifford. But what does it say when things fall this fast across the board with one injury? Penn State had far more talent across the board. They should have outclassed Illinois without Clifford or PJ Mustipher available. This isn’t some upstart team with a couple players they rely on — this is supposed to be a championship-caliber team that isn’t derailed by one injury. Yet Illinois was the team to outwill and bully the Nittany Lions for 60 minutes.
Penn State has an awful lot to figure out on both sides of the ball, and what direction they want to go as a program. It’s also a terrible time to have so much uncertainty. They still have three games against teams ranked in the top eight, starting with a trip to Columbus to face the red-hot Buckeyes on Saturday night. They will also face motivated Maryland and Rutgers squads who will match or exceed the intensity of that Illinois displayed on Saturday to grit out a victory. A poor end to this season could lead to some hard questions as the Nittany Lions face a brutal start to the 2022 season - road games at Michigan, Auburn and Purdue as well as a visit from the Buckeyes are all within the first six weeks.
It would be nice to say that Saturday was just a fluke. But we’ve seen these baffling losses year-after-year, and the loss against Illini was far more inexplicable than any of the other letdowns that came out of nowhere.
They sure better find some clarity, and soon.