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Penn State Football: The Dreams and Nightmares of the 2020 Season

by on November 21, 2020 9:40 PM

As Penn State trotted out onto the field for the second half of Saturday evening’s game, Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill’s song "Dreams And Nightmares" pounded through the Beaver Stadium sound system.

"I used to pray for times like this," Mill says to open his anthem. 

For Penn State, this season has always been about dreams and nightmares. It has been about what could have happened and what has happened. It’s about what everyone saw as the Nittany Lions left the field at the Cotton Bowl — a team that looked the part — and the unforeseen that took place instead.

Penn State’s last five years have been far more the dream side of things than the nightmares. The Nittany Lions have won a Big Ten Title and been part of the playoff conversation on two different occasions while winning at a rate only matched by the game’s elite. James Franklin has checked off nearly every box he said he wanted to back in 2014.

Fast-forward to 2020 and that plan was supposed to continue. The dream for Franklin and those within the Lasch Building was that a three-headed running back room coupled with a returning starting quarterback would pilot Penn State’s offense. On the other side of the ball, an All-American linebacker with top five draft pick hopes that would anchor a defense which had been as stout as any in the nation over the years.

Everything — so it seemed — was working out just like the dream they had envisioned in their heads.

"See my dreams unfold, nightmares come true."

But then that linebacker decided to turn pro amidst an unforeseen rules change that was the product of an unforeseen pandemic. Then the first running back couldn’t play, then the second, and then on Saturday night Devyn Ford added his name to the list of those nursing an injury.

The defense was supposed to survive the absence of Micah Parsons. But it hasn’t.

The offense was supposed to adjust and be able to lean on its quarterback and shiny new offensive coordinator instead of its running backs. It has been unable to do so reliably.  

Special teams were supposed to be a threat; instead they have been largely stagnant. The Nittany Lions were supposed to be good, but they are far from it.

Saturday night was effectively this theme played out in the microcosm of a 60-minute game. Will Levis marching Penn State down the field for the first half touchdown, the Nittany Lions looked competent enough on offense and the defense matched it.

The dream of a season turning a corner was alive.

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But then it wasn't. The offense stalled out behind a limited quarterback surrounded by the only healthy options left and that once stout defense wasn’t strong enough to hold off a physical Iowa attack.

Then when Clifford was inserted back into his role in the second half, he managed two long touchdowns on back-to-back throws. He looked like his former self. Penn State dreamed that this would happen, dreamed that Clifford would find his 2019 form and give them hope for this season and beyond.

But then he threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. With them, the dreams of a comeback turned into the nightmare this season has become for Penn State.

* * *

The exact origin of dreams are unknown but scientists theorize that dreams are a way for our brains to process emotions. It’s a digestive system for our thoughts, a place where our stresses can manifest in unique and tangible ways.

It begs the question if football players ever dream about football, if a life consumed by Xs and OS, played out in front of millions of people each weekend can seep into the subconscious, turning a football player’s own pressures into his dreams.

Or into his nightmares.

“I do dream about football,” safety Jaquan Brisker said after the game. “I dream three or four times a week about football. Once I dream, I just see the plays that I make. I’m just out there on the field. I do, I dream about football.”

Tonight Brisker might think about the interception he nearly had in the first half, one deep in Iowa territory that may have turned the game and momentum prior to halftime. He might dream about a what-could-have-been defense not short on talent but apparently prone to the big play and missed tackles.

Who could blame him for dreaming about it?

Even star receiver Jahan Dotson isn’t immune to life’s emotional processing system. He is like everyone else: human, full of fears and stresses, uncertainty and confidence. Good days and bad.

“I don’t usually have nightmares about football,” Dotson said, “just because I’ve been doing it for so long. I dream about being atop the pedestal. I want to go to sleep at night every day knowing I got better at something. That’s just a big thing for me.”

Dotson will go to bed knowing he did the best he could, recording his fourth game of 90+ yards receiving, this time making eight catches on 11 targets. If any Nittany Lion can go to bed with at least the peace of mind that he did his part, it’s Dotson.

But all of them are living that nightmare they thought was going to be a dream. Maybe the Nittany Lions fell prey to past success not requiring hard work in the present. Maybe they’re snakebitten. Maybe they’re just not good. Maybe they’re not well-coached. Whatever the case, they are late for class, their pants are falling down, they can’t outrun the bear, they’re going to miss an important date, they can't find the bathroom, they're falling slowly off a cliff.

Whatever it is, whatever your nightmare is, they’re living theirs.

With at least four games to go, three in the regular season before a crossover game to close out the year, the Nittany Lions will try to wake themselves up from this nightmare. But like all of us, how you wake up from one varies. There is no catch-all answer to fixing a football team just like there isn’t an answer for everyone when it comes to breaking free from the terror of whatever is chasing you in your sleep.

Some of this responsibility will fall on the players, but much of it will fall at the feet of James Franklin and his staff.

There is a dream and a nightmare in this as well for both him and Penn State. The dream, that the Nittany Lions’ 2016 and 2017 seasons were the norm, that the program could finally turn into the thing it has always wanted to be. 2020 has been odd and bad and strange, and Penn State has not been immune to this. Thing will get back to normal. Right?

The nightmare: that things peaked in 2017 as Penn State throttled Michigan ranked No. 2 in the nation. The nightmare is that for all that money, James Franklin’s most successful seasons at Penn State are behind him, and that the Nittany Lions’ success was as much a product of a roster stocked with all-time greats and Joe Moorhead's smarts as it was anything Franklin has done. That Penn State's own Big Ten title wouldn't have happened without a bit of help from Ohio State. That in the end, Penn State has only done so much under its own power.

What if that blocked field goal in 2016 had bounced away from Grant Haley?

The truth in all of this lies somewhere in the middle, but what happens next is uncertain.

This much is for sure though: Penn State started this season chasing a dream and will end it trying to wake from a nightmare.

But much like Meek Mill, the Nittany Lions are hoping shake free of 2020 and tell the world: "Hold up wait a minute, y’all thought I was finished?"

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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