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Quick Turnarounds Aren’t New For Penn State Football

With hundreds and hundreds of games played throughout its storied history, Penn State football certainly isn’t used to prolonged spells of both winning and losing.

Prior to last season, the program posted 15 consecutive winning seasons, good for the fourth-longest streak in the nation and the second-highest of such in the Big Ten. 

Although the impressive feat was snapped at the hands of an irregular, pandemic-hindered season, the Nittany Lions’ rapid turnaround from an abysmal 0-5 start in 2020 to its current 4-0 record — highlighted by two ranked wins and a spot as the No. 4 team in the country — is nothing new for the program. 

Other than last season, Penn State’s last losing campaign came in 2004 when a youthful Joe Paterno-led squad finished with a subpar 4-7 campaign, accentuated by a six-game Big Ten winless streak spanning from late September to early November. 

The run, which is commonly referred to as the latter stage of the “dark years”, became so widely scrutinized that many prominent voices within the college football landscape called for the legendary coach to resign voluntarily, despite his track record of consistently producing championship-caliber teams for nearly four decades. 

Similarly, following a remarkable six-year run featuring a Big Ten championship victory and three New Year’s Six bowl game appearances, James Franklin faced a comparable level of criticism for his team’s performance in 2020. Although his job security never reached the hottest of hot seats, his previous accomplishments seemed too minimal to overshadow the worst start to a season in program history. 

In both situations, the subsequent campaigns began with uncertainty, but the return of key weapons provided reason for optimism. Both teams were sparked with leadership from senior quarterbacks, with Michael Robinson leading the way in 2005 and Sean Clifford playing the same role in 2021.

Robinson entered his final year behind center as a first-year starter, but the established gadget player competed in 33 games throughout his first three seasons as a Nittany Lion, equating to eight more than Clifford at the same point in his career. 

The wide receiving corps consisting of three freshmen in Derrick Williams, Jordan Norwood, and Deon Butler gave Paterno’s offense an element of speed and after-the-catch electricity it hadn’t seen since the high-flying 1994 attack spurred a perfect, undefeated record. 

This season, Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith fit the same mold as the three program legends who began their careers in 2005, consisting of young playmakers who excel in the open field. Additionally, Jahan Dotson’s role as a punt returner coupled with being the clearcut favorite target on the outside is vastly similar to the dual-threat part Williams played throughout his Penn State career. 

On defense, the stout Tom Bradley-coordinated unit allowed just over 17 points per game through the first four weeks of play in 2005. Throughout the same span 16 years later, Brent Pry’s group hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in a matchup during the opening stretch of play, with its total efforts equal to giving up just 15 points per contest.

In 2005, after entering the campaign with a two-game winning streak to end an underwhelming 2004 season, Penn State began the year firing with a 4-0 record, just as it has following its latest losing season. After beginning the season with three non-conference home victories, including two over established Big East programs in Cincinnati and South Florida, the Nittany Lions were able to build off a fourth quarter come-from-behind road victory against Northwestern in week four. 

The five-point win over Northwestern helped propel the Nittany Lions to two straight ranked victories over No. 18 Minnesota and No. 6 Ohio State in the second-ever White Out. The win over the Buckeyes then pushed the once-losing squad to a perfect 6-0 record and a No. 8 ranking nationally. 

Comparably, Penn State’s opening-week victory against No. 12 Wisconsin over 15 years later can be seen as a similar building block to the program’s first conference victory of the season in 2005. Both teams and coaching staffs were able to channel experiences from coming up empty in late-game situations from the previous year, which helped trigger fourth-quarter comebacks in both pivotal victories.

Against the Wildcats, Penn State outscored the home squad 17-6 in the final 15 minutes, highlighted by a 36-yard go-ahead touchdown pass to Derrick Williams with under a minute remaining to seal the season-defining victory.

At Camp Randall Stadium less than three weeks ago, the Nittany Lions once again outscored a conference foe to steal its first road victory by out-dueling the Badgers 9-3 in the last quarter. The win marked one of the biggest during James Franklin’s tenure, and subsequently drove the tight-knit unit to another ranked victory over No. 22 Auburn two games later. 

Although the 2005 squad lost in a week-seven heartbreaker at the hands of Michigan to end its hopes of an undefeated regular season, the well-rounded group helped restore Penn State’s reputation as a true championship contender by finishing the year with an 11-1 record, culminating with an Orange Bowl victory over No. 22 Florida State. The feat earned the Nittany Lions the No. 3 spot in the final AP Top 25 Poll, the program’s best season-ending ranking since. 

The current Penn State team has the opportunity to make the same mark as its counterpart from 15 years ago. With a current No. 4 ranking and four top-25 teams left on the remaining slate, the Nittany Lions have the chance to avenge both its losing record from a season ago and the 2005 team’s heartbreaking loss that eventually costed the program a chance at a national title berth. 

College football has undoubtedly changed more than ever in the last 16 years, but if one constant has remained, it’s that Penn State has historically responded well to adversity. While the Nittany Lions’ No. 19 ranking in the preseason polls could’ve certainly been seen as unjustifiable, James Franklin’s team is already on the cusp of restoring the program’s proud tradition of bouncing back.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania majoring in journalism. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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