Penn State heads into this weekend looking to be one of the few teams in the nation to have played all of its scheduled games. Perhaps a blessing and a curse when it’s all said and done, the Nittany Lions are looking to improve to 4-5 on the year with a shot at a bowl game to bring things back to .500.
But first the Nittany Lions will have to upend a Illinois team that is without its head coach in recently fired Lovie Smith. Sometimes that means smooth sailing, other times it might mean an overly motivated team. Either way, the Nittany Lions will want to finish the year on a high note, and wait and see what might happen with bowl season.
Here’s what to watch for.
Play Like It’s Your Last:
This very well could be Penn State’s last game of the season, do the Nittany Lions play like it? In truth there are two different ways to play a final game of the year that everyone wants to move on from; with purpose or with indifference. Can Penn State finish the season with four-straight wins? That might very well send the Nittany Lions to a bowl during a year when there are no eligibility requirements. Given the uncertainty around cancellations and bowl games in general, there’s no guarantee a 10th game is going to happen, so leave it all out there.
Down And Out:
Illinois enters the game without Lovie Smith and without its top receiving target. The Illini are trending in the wrong direction and have every reason in the world to just pack it in and call it a year. Can Penn State look like the team that it is? One on a winning-streak that is trending in the right direction? The Nittany Lions are gaining more and more confidence, can they finish things off by taking care of business against a team that it ought to beat? Imagine the feeling in the locker room after the first drama-free win of the year. This might be the best chance of the season to do just that, and also might be the last. The Illini are giving up over 30 points a game, go get them.
Land The Dismount:
As the potential last game of the year, can Penn State give you the feeling that things are heading in the right direction? That can be subjective, but at the end of the day a convincing win in which the NIttany Lions play four solid quarters and are able to go wire-to-wire would go a long way towards confidence inside and outside the Lasch Building. It seems unlikely that Penn State will hit the field and suddenly have everything figured out, but a win, solid performances and the feeling that 0-5 is fully a thing of the past would go far at this point of the year.
Penn State isn’t in the position it would like to be at the end of the year, but as a team the Nittany Lions have gotten better each week over the past several games and continue to look more and more like the Nittany Lions of old. Can they take another small step? This doesn’t mean erasing all its issues at once, but if Penn State can continue to look like it’s trending in the right direction, that will be key for the overall development of the team moving into 2021. Penn State managed to turn the season around by taking care of the little things, sooner or later you take care of those and big picture items take care of themselves. Winning starts with the basics.
In a similar area, Penn State is almost certainly going to be leaning on Sean Clifford once again in 2021 at the quarterback spot. The past several games Clifford has looked more and more like his old self, the more he is able to do that in what might be his last game action for months, the better off his confidence and his coach’s confidence will be in the quarterback room moving forward. Clifford doesn’t have to turn into Joe Montana overnight, but the more he looks like 2019 Clifford, the happier everyone will be. Can he make it four-straight games of solid game management?