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Penn State’s House of Cards

For the rest of the season, the Nittany Lions need to regroup and continue to build.

Just a little over four years ago, Penn State was on the heels of its second consecutive blown fourth quarter lead to the Ohio State Buckeyes. After the game, James Franklin gave an impassioned speech to the media, and called his shot in getting Penn State over the hump from a “great” program to an “elite” one. Fast forward some 1,400 days, and things haven’t quite gone to plan. Instead of the Nittany Lions making a big push to start the decade, they threw up all over themselves the last two years, finishing the 2020 and 2021 seasons with a combined record of 11-11. The whole “great-to-elite” thing takes a backseat when your winning percentage is .500.

Still, despite the the nightmare the last two years have been, the Nittany Lions were in a position on Saturday afternoon to really make up for the previous two seasons. With Kaytron Allen’s fourth-and-goal scamper into the end zone, Penn State — like its 2017 and 2018 versions — had a fourth quarter lead over a highly-ranked Buckeye squad. But, unfortunately, history repeated itself once again on Saturday, as the Nittany Lions squandered away another program-changing victory.

If we go back to the 2018 game, I wrote after how I believed that James Franklin was going to get this thing right. To be exact, I said:

So be mad about the result on Saturday night. Be disappointed that Penn State let one slip away again. But remember the strides this program has made in just two years time. Remember where this program is headed.

And, most of all, remember — James Franklin will get this done.

A little bit of sunshine pumping for sure, but the basis of the article was rooted in the fact that Penn State was starting to hits its stride on the recruiting trail. They were just coming off signing their first Top 10 class under James Franklin, and were on their way to sign another one, too. There was going to be this influx of talent coming into the program in the coming years, which would pull Penn State closer to the “elites” of college football from a talent perspective.

As it turns out, that actually happened. Penn State’s offense back in 2018 was already pretty talented with an average recruiting rating of 91.64, but that has increased ever-so-slightly to 91.81 this past Saturday. Defensively though is where the Nittany Lions have seen the biggest jump, going from a meager 87.46 in 2018 to a 91.11 on Saturday — which includes all players (16, to be exact) who saw at least 20 snaps against the Buckeyes.

But yet, despite the increase in talent across the roster, Penn State finds itself in the same spot it did four years ago: wondering *how* it could let a fourth quarter lead slip away? Obviously, that’s a loaded question to answer, and one that doesn’t have a single defined solution. If you look at Saturday, there were a number of factors that played into Penn State just not having enough. Sean Clifford played far from a clean game. The offensive line, while improved, still showed its warts. The defensive line, filled with three former Top 100 prospects, struggled to generate consistent pressure on CJ Stroud. Manny Diaz, although putting together an all-around solid game plan, decided to play his first round corner 8 yards off the line of scrimmage on a critical 3rd and 10.

The point: all of this stuff is much harder than we (most notably: 2018 Patrick) would like, and the margin for error is so extremely small. I mean, look at Ohio State and Georgia. Two stupidly elite programs over the last decade. They have completely dominated recruiting, with 75% of their rosters being comprised of four-and-five-stars. They have first round pick after first round pick every season. And to show for their domination? One title a piece; Ohio State’s in 2014 and Georgia’s coming last year.

So for Penn State fans, it can be easy to look at the five-star quarterback waiting in the wings. It can be easy to point at a defensive end rotation of Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac, and Dani Dennis-Sutton in 2023. It can be easy for us to think of what this offensive line might look like next season should left tackle Olu Fashanu come back.

But man, this game of college football is as fickle as a house of cards. You can be building it properly, you can believe that the house is sturdy, and it only takes one wrong move for the house to shake, if not completely fall.

For me, that’s the most important thing the rest of the season: don’t let the rest of the house collapse. There’s something admirable in how this program goes after Ohio State, but after how the last two years have gone, Penn State can’t measure the success of the season on just beating the Buckeyes. If anything, the last two years should have expressed that — at this very point — success and progress are also shown in what Penn State is able to do consistently on a week-to-week basis beyond the marquee games.

It’s that “consistency” piece that has been missing because far too often, the Nittany Lions have stumbled against opponents they are favored to beat. As fans, we spend so much time lamenting being in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan and the difficulties that it provides Penn State, but yet the Nittany Lions have never just taken care of business otherwise. Just since the 2020 season, Penn State has lost to: Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Michigan State, Indiana, and Illinois.

Of course, there’s context to some of those losses — the 2020 ones in particular. But there is no reason that a program that recruits as well as Penn State does (13th highest Blue-Chip Ratio), and puts players into the NFL at the level it does (31 draft picks the last five years, second most in the Big Ten), should have those series of losses in a two-year stretch.

That’s where I perhaps missed the mark with my 2018 article. Yes, Penn State bringing in more talent would lend itself to upending the Buckeyes more often. Despite the last couple years, that’s still the case. But where that increase of talent needs to show itself just as much is against everyone else. That should be the beauty of the talent advantage Penn State has against every other program outside of Michigan and Ohio State — it shouldn’t need a perfectly executed game every week to go 1-0.

When you look at Penn State’s remaining schedule, it’s about as favorable as a college football program could ask for. It’s playing three teams unlikely to make a bowl game: @Indiana, @Rutgers, and Michigan State. Meanwhile, the toughest game with 6-2 Maryland is in the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium. ESPN’s FPI model gives the Nittany Lions a 42.3% of winning out, which might sound low given that Penn State should be the favorite in all four of the games, but it’s the second best odds in the country behind (oddly enough) Ohio State.

Should the expectation be that Penn State wins out? Maybe, maybe not. That’s kind of the point though — it might not be the flashy headline grabber, but there’s still something uniquely impressive in winning the games you should. It’s something that the really good programs do, and not so oddly enough, something Penn State hasn’t done in recent times. So although it doesn’t match beating the No. 2 team in the country, an undefeated November will certainly help fortify the base for a program that needs it.