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Penn State Football’s Snowballing Losses Prevent Jump From ‘Great’ To ‘Elite’

On Saturday, Penn State football dropped its second consecutive contest in a three-week span after falling to Illinois in a nine-overtime slugfest at Beaver Stadium. Despite clearly being the better team on paper through the first six weeks of the season, the Nittany Lions looked uninspired and flat from the opening kick to the final whistle.

While Penn State clearly had several limiting factors contributing to the loss including a visibly banged up starting quarterback and the void of its most disruptive run-stopper in PJ Mustipher, the defeat marked the sixth time in James Franklin’s eight-year tenure that his squad has suffered back-to-back losses in the same campaign.

Over the span, the Nittany Lions have typically lost games following prior defeats to notably worse opponents. In 2014, Franklin’s first season in Happy Valley, Penn State lost four consecutive games spanning from late September to early November. At the peak of the winless stretch, Franklin’s squad lost a double-overtime heartbreaker at the hands of the eventual National Champions in Ohio State.

The contest didn’t just scare Urban Meyer’s historic squad. Instead, it gave him and his staff the largest threat to jeopardizing their impressive 14-1 championship run, resulting in the first title of the playoff era.

Despite falling in dramatic fashion, the showing demonstrated the Nittany Lions’ ability to hang with the nation’s best, despite its inability to climb over the hump.

A week later, Penn State suffered an inexcusable, one-point loss to a subpar Maryland team that finished the season with five losses. For reference, in the same campaign, Maryland lost to the Buckeyes by a convincing 21-point margin.

The four-game losing sequence once again held true in 2015, but subsided in 2016, resulting in a Big Ten Championship victory and Franklin’s most successful season in Happy Valley to date.

Since Penn State’s most accomplished post-sanction season, the common theme has persisted. In four of the last five campaigns, Franklin and Co. haven’t been able to shake initial losses and seamlessly pivot back into winning form.

In both 2017 and 2018, talented offenses catapulted the Nittany Lions into the thick of the midseason top-10 rankings, but two respective one-point losses to Ohio State each year carried into the following games and consequently ended the program’s playoff hopes in matchups it otherwise should have won.

The two teams faced a down Michigan State program following both losses to the Buckeyes, but Franklin’s team was simply out-coached and unprepared in both instances after suffering its first blemish in the loss column.

If the Nittany Lions were to hurdle the Spartans in 2017’s devastating three-point loss in East Lansing, the team would have almost certainly represented the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff, despite losing the previous road battle in Columbus.

Moreover, if Penn State could’ve outperformed Mark Dantonio’s group in 2018, it would have likely earned its third consecutive New Year’s Six bid with a 10-2 regular-season record. While James Franklin’s 20-6 record throughout the two-season span is certainly impressive, the pair of losses to unranked teams undoubtedly cost the program a shot at larger aspirations.

After Penn State’s emotional loss to Ohio State in 2018, Franklin opened his postgame press conference with a fiery rant highlighted by contrasting the differences between a “great” program, and one of “elite” caliber. Since then, the head coach has led his squad to a mundane 25-12 record, including an average 9-7 spurt in its last 16 games.

Under the direction of Franklin in 2020 and 2021, all of Penn State’s losses have been mounted in consecutive form. Last October, if the Nittany Lions were able to escape Bloomington with an early-season win over Indiana, it would’ve likely avoided its first losing season since 2004. Instead, the visibly defeated group let the poor taste linger leading to another four losses, with most coming against less-talented teams.

Similarly, if the Nittany Lions were to weather the storm two weeks ago against the Hawkeyes, the team would presumably be entering Saturday’s season-defining matchup in Columbus as one of college football’s few remaining undefeated squads.

Of course, any time Penn State plays Ohio State, Big Ten supremacy is at stake. But a spot as one of the final top four playoff teams is now almost certainly out the door, as no two-loss team has ever been selected for the final bracket by the 11-person committee.

For Penn State to move the needle towards being an annual playoff contender, Franklin needs to play his role better in righting the ship following setbacks. Until Penn State is able to reach the next level of consistency under the head coach’s lead, its goal of truly competing with the country’s best for a national championship will remain a pipe dream.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. 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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