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So Close, Yet So Far

Hey, What Happened?

Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) gestures from the line of scrimmage during the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Beaver Stadium. Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a Penn State basketball fan, this story will sound familiar to you: The Nittany Lions held a lead in the closing minutes of the game, but, for one reason or another, a series of events led to their eventual fall.

This has been the story with the football version of the Nittany Lions this season. For the fourth time, the Nittany Lions were in great position to win in the closing minutes of the game, but a broken play was the difference between the sweet nectar of victory and the sour taste of defeat.

First you had Iowa. After the offense unraveled when Penn State could no longer rely on its quarterback, the defense did everything in its power to hold on to the lead they had built. And, for much of the game, it appeared like they would do just that. But a misdirection play turned what was possible Penn State sack into an Iowa touchdown instead.

Then you had Illinois. Still banged up, Sean Clifford did everything in his power to will Penn State to the end zone. He managed to do it once, and, for all intents and purposes, it would have been all they needed. But Jaquan Brisker dropped a sure interception, and instead, Illinois drove down for the field goal. We know what happened after that.

Next there was Ohio State. A series of events took Penn State from holding on to the lead to playing cath-up, and catch up they did. In the waning minutes of the game, Sean Clifford had John Lovett for what was a go-ahead touchdown, if Lovett hadn’t stepped out of bounds before catching the ball. Ohio State went on to win.

That leads us to this game. Like the three before them, there are a number of reasons one can say would have changed this outcome. If they go for it with the offense instead of a fake field goal in the first quarter. If Cam Sullivan-Brown catches one of the two targets to him in the last offensive drive. If Penn State scores a touchdown after getting a Michigan turnover inside their own 20. If, as it had been the case all game, Penn State avoids giving up a big play, and forces Michigan to drive down the field instead, maybe we’re enjoying the victory today.

But that’s not what happened. What happened is what had been the case in the three other games they played. Some would say that this is a regression to the mean. Winning close against Wisconsin and Auburn showed that the Lions were playing at the margins, and eventually the ball would bounce the other way. Others will say that the team just hasn’t been the same since Clifford went down.

Maybe there’s a little bit of truth in all of it. Maybe being unable to establish a run game all season long was a bigger detriment than we thought. Maybe not abandoning the running game earlier was more costly! Or, maybe, not giving Keyvone Lee the bulk of the carries early was the thing that kept the running game from developing this whole time.

In what little running game we have seen out of the Nittany Lions, Lee has been the most consistent of the bunch, continually finding ways to get extra yards after contact, occasionally going for more than three years (sometimes going for 12 at a time!), and finally, avoiding the Saquon Barkley esque dance-arounds in the backfield that used to lead to loss of yards.

There are plenty of tiny little things we can dissect, both in this game and in the season overall. Any one of them probably changes the entire narrative —notice I haven’t even touched on the offensive line yet, who could not buy Clifford any time in the pocket, to go along with their abysmal run blocking. But, as it stands today, this season will, maybe more than any other under Franklin, be one of lost potential. Such a promising season will end with a whimper, after everyone saw what could have been.

So close, yet so far.