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Moral Victories Are Cliché, But Penn State Football Showed It Can Hang With Nation’s Best

Entering the season, if you were to ask James Franklin if he would have taken a nine-point loss at the hands of Ohio State in Columbus, he would’ve laughed. With sky-high expectations on both sides of the ball, the eighth-year head coach would’ve been crazy to settle for anything but a victory.

After four consecutive losses by an average margin of under seven points over the same amount of years to the Buckeyes, Penn State has proven it is better equipped to compete with the Big Ten juggernaut than any other team in the conference. But after seven grueling weeks of play featuring contests against three ranked teams, the Nittany Lions entered Saturday’s matchup hardly in favorable form.

In its last two outings prior to playing in the Horseshoe, Penn State dropped two consecutive matchups by a combined five points. The team’s meteoritic rise to a No. 4 national ranking heading into a pivotal game in Iowa City pales in comparison to how quickly the program transformed into a multi-loss team with the risk of finishing around the .500 mark. Moreover, during the winless span, Franklin’s crew lost its ability to play complementary football, an area where it flourished throughout the first five weeks of the season.

Although the Nittany Lions’ most recent performance against Ohio State didn’t result in a win, the previously counted-out group answered the call in Columbus by giving the top-5 squad a legitimate, four-quarter scare on Saturday. While moral victories don’t count as wins on the stat sheet, Penn State showed a national audience why it is deserving of a spot in the top 25, despite being the only three-loss team in the poll.

A week ago, Penn State’s depleted run defense was gashed for 357 yards on 67 carries against a six-loss Illinois team. Seven days later, the Nittany Lions held Ohio State’s rushing attack to just 161 yards throughout the night with the same exact personnel.

On the other side of the ball, Sean Clifford played one of his worst games in a Penn State uniform against the Illini, although he was clearly injured. In the nine-overtime affair, the third-year starter finished the game with just 165 yards through the air and a measly 17.8 quarterback rating.

Similar to how the defense adjusted, Clifford flipped the script upside down in Columbus. The Ohio native played with visible confidence, dicing the opposing secondary for 361 yards and an early go-ahead touchdown. Although Penn State’s late comeback effort was hindered by a costly interception, Clifford demonstrated how dangerous Mike Yurcich’s offense can be moving forward with four conference games remaining on the slate.

While losing five straight to Ohio State is frustrating for a program on the cusp of reaching its rival’s top-tier status, the Nittany Lions shouldn’t hang their heads based on how they competed as nearly three-touchdown underdogs. Unfortunately for the rest of the conference, including Penn State, Ryan Day’s program, with the help of Urban Meyer’s mold, has just been another level above every other team.

Since Penn State’s monumental upset over No. 2 Ohio State in 2016, the Buckeyes haven’t lost to a Big Ten East opponent in 29 games against divisional foes.

Throughout the five-year span since, Ohio State offenses have outscored divisional opponents by a dominant 26.45 point-per-game margin. Even more impressively, only six contests against East division teams have concluded in one-score games, with two coming against the Nittany Lions in 2017 and 2018.

Very rarely are the Buckeyes pushed to the limit, and on Saturday, Franklin’s group did just that. While a program the caliber of Penn State should have no business counting “moral victories”, the valiant effort showed the three-loss team has the ability to compete with the nation’s best.

With two matchups against ranked opponents looming, the Nittany Lions still have the ability to earn its fair share of season-defining wins. Based on the way the team fought on the road in hostile territory, Penn State certainly proved it has what it takes to reverse its recent losing stretch into a season-concluding winning streak.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a junior 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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