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Another Close Loss Caps Off The Biggest What If Season

Penn State was, once again, a few plays away from beating a ranked team on the road. It didn’t happen.

Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) walks off the field during halftime against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State did not lose a single regular season game by double digits. That’s an honor they’ll share with Nebraska, who just finished capping off a 1-8 Big Ten finish while achieving a 0-0 margin of victory. Yes, they beat Northwestern so badly that all the other losses combined still managed to only equal the margin they beat Northwestern by.

But that’s neither here nor there. The point, of course, is that with each and every close loss come a dozen of different scenarios that, had they gone differently, put Penn State in great position to win. And since we’re into Misery Porn™* nowadays, let’s recount some from each loss:

Iowa: Keep more than a single drive alive, and Penn State manages to run out the clock. The best way to do that would have been to avoid the multitudes of false start penalties, but simply completing a pass or two would have led to enough first downs to flip the field and force Iowa to drive more than 50 yards, which they proved unable to do all game long. In fact, they had one scoring drive longer than 50 yards, every other scoring drive was inside Penn State territory. Flip the field even once after Sean Clifford went down, and that’s a win.

Illinois: Change nothing but the dropped interception by Jaquan Brisker, and the game never makes it to overtime. This one, as atrocious as it was, really did come down to something as simple as that. Now of course, there were plenty of other things to dissect here, the biggest one being how Illinois continued to run left all game long and kept having success with it, or how forward progress was called on a fumble play that would have been a score for Penn State, or, or, you get the point.

Ohio State: Once again, a single play turns the entire tide. If John Lovett doesn’t step out of bounds, or if the defender gets called for pushing, Penn State takes a 31-30 lead. Better yet, if KeAndre Lambert-Smith doesn’t do the same thing earlier in the game, Penn State likely takes a 14-3 lead early in the game, instead of barely hanging on. Or if Clifford gets just enough time to find the wide open Jahan Dotson, or the plethora of other plays that were there for the making.

Michigan: I think this one has the easiest of them all! Go four it on fourth and win. Score the field goal and force Michigan to adjust their offense.

And lastly, if you changed nothing but the 4th and 15 play against Michigan State, the Lions are likely coming back victorious. There are plenty of other issues to call out, especially why it took so long on that last scoring drive, but the fact of the matter is that Penn State’s uncharacteristically bad defensive performance through the air was the key to victory here.

And that’s just it. Penn State showed such promise at the beginning of the season, then seemingly squandered it all as the season progressed. The losses themselves may not be as frustrating in a vacuum, especially if you put it in the context of last season. It’s the expectations, the order, and the way in which the losses happened.

It was easy to tune out last season, because the Nittany Lions had removed all doubt by the time Maryland was scoring at will. But this season, the Lions found ways to win the games early in the season that they ended up losing later in the year. And with each frustrating loss, the demand for answers grows.

But, here’s the part that people are seemingly unwilling to admit: What coach, what AD, what representative for a team they follow has come out, given a 10-point plan on how to they are going to win, executed the plan both to perfection and to precision, then answered every fan’s question exactly and without deviating from the stated plan? No one has. Not Nick Saban, not Urban Meyer, not Bear Bryant, not Joe Paterno, and most certainly not Jim Harbaugh, who not too long ago agreed to restructure his contract because he too didn’t have the answers the Michigan faithful sought.

In fact, think about that Michigan program. With a win against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game, they would win the Big Ten for the first time since 2004. That’s 17 years without a conference championship for one of the most storied programs in the country. Jim Harbaugh just beat Ohio State for the first time in his tenure as coach. That’s one win in seven tries. But, because it happened now and not five years ago, the outlook on their program is a lot more rosy than it otherwise would have been. One could argue that consistently building to this moment instead of blowing up early then trying to maintain is a better approach, and we’ll see in the future if that’s the answer.

And therein lies the trick. We have a vision of how things should be. Sometimes that vision is the same as the coaching staff. Sometime it’s different, but all times, the only thing that answers the question is seeing that W at the end of the game. It was easy to be hopeful after 2020 because the five losses came before the four wins. It is harder to feel hopeful for the future after 2021 because the five loses came after the five wins. And any answer that James Franklin, Sandy Barbour, or anyone in a position of power at Penn State may give you will mean nothing, unless they go out and win.

If anything, the only request I’d make of the coaching staff is that, moving forward, try to get to a level of consistency where the Illinoises of the world stop having their massive, program changing win against your teams. Penn State gifted Minnesota their season in 2019, they did the same to Indiana in 2020, did it to the aforementioned Illinois in 2021, not to mention the two Michigan State losses in 2017 and 2018. Stop losing such games, and maybe the outlook of the program won’t be as bleak as it seems to day. That’s an answer I would love to see.

But other than that, this will remain what it is: Until they win, we will question everything, and when they win, we will expect everything.

*What is the sign of a true Penn State Pessimist? Well of course, it’s Misery Porn™!