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33 Random Thoughts on Penn State’s Shocking Loss to Illinois

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Musings on a strange and problematic Saturday

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

On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Illini of the University of Illibois engaged in a contest of American football at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions fell in 9 overtimes, 20-18. I have several thoughts, which are set forth randomly below.

  1. So this was unexpected.
  2. I figured this week, I wouldn’t have much to say. Instead, I have a lot to say, but I’m having a hard time finding the words.
  3. Can we all agree that college overtime has the dumbest set of rules of any game on the planet?
  4. I’ve seen bad Penn State teams get beaten and outmuscled, but it’s hard to find a defense that has been this good throughout a given year that got shoved backwards like this team did by a bad opponent.
  5. Make no mistake - Illinois is bad. Actively terrible. They are not “getting better” or “up and coming.” Somehow, though, Penn State made them look like the second coming of Wisconsin.
  6. The closest comp I can think of is the 2004 Wisconsin game.
  7. That seems odd, because that was one of the two worst Penn State teams of the modern era.
  8. But…that defense.
  9. That 2004 defense might’ve been the best Penn State defense of the last 50 years. It allowed 21 points twice. Once to Ohio State, once to Boston College.
  10. Otherwise, they allowed 20 to Purdue, and no more than 18 to any other team.
  11. And against Wisconsin, they gave up 16.
  12. And lost. 16-3.
  13. There’s no shame in losing to Wisconsin, or giving up rushing yards to them. But that 2004 team didn’t get bulldozed by anyone.
  14. And yet, on that one night in Madison, that defense got bulldozed. And not even by a vaunted Wisconsin running back.
  15. Instead, they got smashed by Wisconsin’s Sandy Koufax - fullback Matt Bernstein.
  16. Fullback Matt Bernstein was 270 pounds and had just fasted for Yom Kippur. And of course, because this is how absurd this story is, he played after multiple injuries left the Badgers depth chart bare.
  17. So, in true Wisconsin form, the fourth string tailback that wasn’t even a tailback rushed for 123 yards and just demoralized this defense from top to bottom.
  18. And, true to Penn State’s 2004 form, they couldn’t muster more than a field goal.
  19. Two weeks ago, the future looked bright. Then Sean Clifford got hobbled and it all went downhill.
  20. Losses hurt and this one made the future feel bleak. After all, if they lost to Illinois, this Illinois, in THAT way, how could they ever compete against Rutgers or Maryland, let alone Michigan or Ohio State.
  21. I don’t know. The darkest timeline has this team finishing 6-6 and James Franklin somehow fleeing for a “better” job, decimating a top recruiting class and leaving Penn State flailing.
  22. On the other hand, this team has already beaten good teams and demonstrated the capacity to stop the run against Wisconsin and Auburn. It has beaten good teams and had Iowa on the run before disaster struck.
  23. This team has more offensive firepower than that 2004 team could even dream of. There was no Jahan Dotson or Parker Washington there. It needed an influx of freshmen talent the following year to become Big Ten champions. This one was a Big Ten contender until a week ago.
  24. We all know that. So why do Penn Staters immediately fall into despair instead of looking at the recent past for some support?
  25. Expectations are painful. They were quickly raised this season and taking the fall from the pedestal is hard. Penn Staters know that feeling more than most.
  26. Maybe this was a harbinger of things to come. Or maybe this was a 2004 defense level fluke.
  27. The one thing I’ll never figure out is how a team with a coach who preaches “1-0 every week” to absurd, almost farcical levels, finds itself letting good teams beat them twice. This is Sparty 2017/2018 on overdrive.
  28. Losing to a bad football team means that you have to beat a good one to even it out. So let’s start this week putting it back together.
  29. Feels like there’s a lot hinging on Sean Clifford’s right shoulder and nimble feet.
  30. I suppose that’s always been true this season, but it’s far more apparent now.
  31. You know what could solve a lot of problems? Beating Ohio State in Columbus.
  32. That’s a tall task, but after yesterday, I’m not certain that they don’t have a better shot against the Buckeyes than they do against Michigan’s running game.
  33. We are…