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Why Penn State Football’s Loss to Illinois Stung So Much

This could be why so many people are not cutting Coach James Franklin much slack after Penn State’s nine overtime loss to Illinois on Saturday:

Penn State was a 24-point favorite.

Illinois entered the game with a 2-5 record.

And in the lead-up to the game even first-year Illini Bret Bielema said many of his players were not very good. (Which may have been one of the greatest set-ups/motivational ploys of the season.)

The backup quarterback who has been with the program for two-and-a-half years is not ready to play.

As they say: That’s it. That’s the Tweet.

Unmet great — and maybe unrealistic – expectations.

Penn State began 2021 ranked No. 19. Then No. 11. Then No. 10. Then No. 6. Then No. 4 – just 15 days ago.

The Nittany Lions were 5-0, with big wins over Wisconsin and Auburn. Then, in the span of 165 hours they lost two games, a healthy quarterback, a defensive bedrock and any hopes of making the playoffs and winning the Big Ten. Again.

Disappointment makes for angry bedfellows.

Of course, expectations come with the territory – geographically, financially and in a stadium of #107k. Not to mention with the pollsters. When contracts are renegotiated twice in 28 months (August 2017, December 2019) and salary plus bonus equals $18,000-plus a day, people expect a lot from you. Those expectations got John Donovan, David Corley, Matt Limegrover and Kirk Ciarrocca fired.

Similarly, in the last nine months Penn State players and coaches have called the coaching staff the best in America, the running back room the best in America, an offensive tackle the best in a generation and the tight end group one of the best there is. None is likely true, we now know.

Penn Staters are loyal traditionalists who thoroughly love their university like few other places, who see themselves as Penn Staters for life who will do anything for other Penn Staters. Through thick and thin.

So, when Franklin does not go all in and does not say he’s not going anywhere when his name is – continuously — linked to other schools, he is not perceived as a legit Penn Stater himself. In this case, perception matters.

I know, I know. He told me a few weeks ago that “I have, I have” said that he is not going anywhere, when I asked him why he hasn’t said exactly that. Actually, he has not. Until he says what Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M said last week about the LSU job, no one will believe him. Right wrong, indifferent – that is the way it is.

“I love being at A&M,” Jimbo said, “and I plan on being here.”

Yes, it is that simple.

Penn State is 8-9 in its last 17 Big Ten conference games. And 12-9 in its last 21 games.

Who you lose to matters.

Of these nine losses, five have been against such B10 programs as Minnesota, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska and Illinois. All but Minnesota are decidedly second-division teams, while the Gophers are 31-21 over the last five seasons.

And, when it comes to facilities, spending on football and fan support, none of the above can match Penn State today.

Now compare that group of five to this quintet:

Prior to the Minnesota loss in 2019, Penn State’s five conference losses in the run-up to that game were against Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan State.

What he said

Franklin’s biggest self-inflicted wound of his 2,843 days at Penn State came on Sept. 29, 2018, after his team lost 27-26 to Ohio State. His now-infamous post-game state of the State statement pissed off many fans as well as some of his players after they had played Ohio State toe-to-toe for the third consecutive season.

It has been his Sword of Damocles ever since.

The quotation, made in front of oodles of national media and scores of recruits and their parents: “The reality is, we’ve gone from an average football team to a good football team to a great football team. But we’re not an elite team yet. The work that it’s going to take to get to an elite program is going to be just as hard as the ground and the distance that we’ve already traveled to get there.”

“We’re going to break through, and be an elite program, by doing all the little things. We’re a great program. We lost to an elite program. And we’re that close.”

Franklin was right.

Penn State was great. Maybe even elite. The Nittany Lions were 24-3 in their run-up to Ohio State in 2018.

And in the three head-to-head Penn State-Ohio State games from 2016-18, Ohio State won two and Penn State won one. The combined score was Penn State 88, Ohio State 87. Awesome games, all of them.

Since: Not great.

Ohio State has won the last two match-ups by a 66-42 edge. TBH, neither game was really close. In 2020, Ohio State led Penn State 21-3. In 2019, Ohio State led Penn State 21-0. Next Saturday in The Shoe will likely push that to edge to 3-0 by perhaps an even bigger margin.

Since the 2018 Ohio State game, Penn State’s record is 25-13 (a good .657) and Ohio State is 34-4 (an elite .895), even with a change at head coach from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day. That includes the Buckeyes’ 54-7 shellacking of Indiana Saturday night — with Philly products QB Kyle McCord throwing to Marvin Harrison Jr. in the fourth quarter.

Ohio State’s losses have been to unranked Purdue, Clemson (in the College Football Playoff semifinals), Alabama (CFP title game) and No. 10 Oregon and Joe Moorhead, 35-28 on Sept. 11.

Of Penn State’s losses, six have been to unranked teams as well as to a No. 16 Kentucky that was 9-3 entering a Citrus Bowl where Penn State played uninspired football.

Going 1-0…except after Iowa.

It’s a good strategy and mindset, for sure, and one that Franklin and his players adhere to. That is to be respected.

Only thing, in the days after the Iowa loss, Franklin was still thinking about the 0-1. Very uncharacteristic.

Ninety-four hours after the final whistle in Kinnick Stadium, Franklin was still adjudicating the defeat and Kirk Ferentz’s many ridiculous statements. Franklin took a lot of time and energy and passion to write and deliver a 4-minute and 16-second rant that looked backward, not forward.  It was an odious charge and CJF took time and energy to address it.

No one won. Literally. Ferentz’s fixation on that storyline certainly played a role, I believe, in Iowa’s subsequent 24-7 loss to Purdue.

Which leads us to…

The Nittany Lions are a not-so-good 3-5 after their first loss of the season since 2014 under Franklin.

Coaches call this losing to the same team twice. They hate it. But, as the son of a man who coached high school football for three decades, I understand it is an occupational hazard. Losses can linger. Franklin takes defeat hard. Very hard. There’s no doubting the coach cares. Maybe too much.

For four of the last five seasons, Penn State’s first loss of the season has been followed by another loss, something that the very astute Sean Fitz of Lions 247 pointed out on Saturday:

Year                First Loss                    Next Game

2021                Iowa                   L, Illinois

2020                Indiana                      L, Ohio State

2019                Minnesota                   W, Indiana

2018                Ohio State                   L, Michigan State

2017                Ohio State                   L, Michigan State

2016                Pitt                              W, Temple

2015                Temple                        W, Buffalo

2014                Northwestern             L, Michigan

Losses gnaw at Franklin, despite the 1-0 Mentality. And you have to think his staff, coaches and players sense that. Last Wednesday, I asked him if his team knew what was still ahead of it or “do you have to do the math for then?”

He answered the question, but quickly went on and mentioned the expectations of the program and how tough it is getting into the College Football Playoff. I saw it as a nuanced way of indicating that one loss — that is not to Ohio State – can kill a Penn State season when you have CFP aspirations, as Penn State did in 2021 after it meteorically rose to 5-0 and as high as No. 4, especially given the greatness of its defense.

“No, I don’t want to. I don’t want them thinking like that,” Franklin replied to me. “There’s too many things, there’s too many people outside, too much outside noise. Everybody’s got an opinion. I want to beat Illinois. And I just truly believe these guys got a bunch on their plate academically, athletically, socially. Cutting this thing up into small pieces and focusing on the task at hand I think is the best way to keep everybody focused and as consistent as possible.”

This is where he provides a reveal of where his mind and heart might also be at. A loss to Iowa can be a deal-breaker of an entire season when you have playoff hopes and Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State – all playing great, if not elite football — are still on deck. (To show you the kind of seasons Michigan and Michigan State are having in 2021: Their game on Saturday is the first time the two teams have met when both were 7-0 or better.)

“I think it’s also magnified,” Franklin added. “I think the philosophy is magnified a little bit, because depending on what type of school you’re at or where you’re at, what the expectation is. And I think that the College Football Playoff has changed that probably more than ever. Depending on what type of school you’re at and where you’re at, the College Football Playoff has dramatically changed, I think, how you operate and how people view things. And I think it’s made it more challenging. I think (it) is the right approach for us.”

There have been a series of fourth-quarter and overtime heart-breaking losses where Penn State either led or was tied late in the game.

Out of Franklin’s 30 losses at PSU, I count 12 such losses in all since 2014 — 11 where Penn State led in the fourth quarter and one where it was tied in the fourth quarter and then in overtime.

Two of these games — what a good friend of mine calls “blown saves” — just came in back-to-back Saturdays. The first one was still raw. Despite missing Sean Clifford at Iowa, the Nittany Lions still led Iowa 20-13 almost seven minutes in the fourth quarter. The Hawkeyes scored 10 points in the final 8:08 of the game to win, 23-20.

Against Illinois, Penn State scored twice in the first 19 minutes of the game, then never scored again in the subsequent 41 minutes of regulation. However, Penn State still led 10-7 in the fourth quarter until Illinois kicked a field goal with 11:49 to play in regulation. That tied the game and sent it into overtime(s).

Two blown saves in eight days may have been one too many for Penn State fans.

Franklin is truly not appreciated. That’s very possibly true. And he may also think so.

How does this fit the “not cutting him slack” storyline?

Well, despite his wonderful rebuilding job at Penn State, his 65 victories, his three New Year’s 6 appearances, his 2016 Big Ten title, his push to improve Penn State football on and off the field, for many it is not enough.

And it may never be. Unless, of course, Penn State beats Ohio State next Saturday. Then, in the fickle world of college football fandom, all is forgiven.