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Illinois Loss Stings Harder For Penn State Following Close Battle With Buckeyes

Penn State football is the only three-loss team in the AP Top 25 Poll.

Now with losses to Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio State on their resume, the Nittany Lions find themselves in a peculiar situation. The pollsters agree: It seems like Penn State is a good football team, but it’s hard to ignore the loss to the Illini.

No matter how you slice it, one of the Nittany Lions’ losses is clearly not like the other.

Sean Clifford’s injury killed Penn State’s momentum against a strong Hawkeye defense. The Buckeyes have one of the best offenses in the Big Ten — it’s understandable the Nittany Lions were outlasted by Ohio State. We can save the good vs. great vs. elite debate for another day.

But, Illinois? It’s hard to justify that one. Despite Clifford’s injury, Penn State should have found a way to put away the 2-5 Illini, who now have a loss to Rutgers on their record. Even the 3-5 Nittany Lions of 2020 found a way to blow Illinois out, 56-21, with no fan support, which is a far cry from the Homecoming crowd of a few weeks ago.

After Penn State’s bounce-back performance against Ohio State, it feels like the Illinois loss will be a scarlet letter the rest of the way. Following the Iowa loss, specialist Jordan Stout said the team’s goals were all still in front of them. Now? Not so much.

With Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff dreams all but mathematically down the drain, the Nittany Lions’ season goals will presumably shift to sneaking into a New Year’s Six bowl.

It’s not impossible. In 2019, No. 24 Virginia made the Orange Bowl despite three regular-season losses. A 10-3 Wisconsin team made the Rose Bowl that year as well, albeit its third loss came from the Big Ten Championship game against Ohio State. Ironically, the Badgers lost to unranked Illinois as a top-10 team that year.

But even if Penn State wins out this year, its resume is going to look good…but have a loss to 2-5 Illinois smack dab in the middle. This hypothetical team would have ranked wins over Wisconsin, Auburn, Michigan, and Michigan State. Whether or not the college football powers that be are willing to look past that Homecoming game is a discussion for a later date. If the new College Football Playoff rankings are any indication, they won’t be.

So, what type of team is Penn State? If you link the team’s success to its quarterback’s health, it’s easy to see that one key injury derailed the season. However, a more well-rounded team would have been able to beat Illinois despite Clifford’s shortcomings. The quarterback looked great against the Buckeyes — perhaps 100% — but his recovery came a week too late.

Is the defense that held Ohio State’s Big Ten-best offense to its second-fewest points of the year the same defense that allowed more than 350 rushing yards to one of the worst teams in the conference? Yes. It doesn’t add up. But at a point, you can’t push aside “fluke” games anymore. Selection committees certainly won’t.

From here, all Penn State can do is double down on its “1-0” crutch.

“I think obviously there’s a few plays and a few games we’d love to have back,” James Franklin said on Tuesday. “That doesn’t happen, so you learn from them, you grow, you be really honest with yourself and your team, and you find a way to get a win this week and build on it from there.”

The Nittany Lions would love to get another shot at Illinois with a renewed mindset and a healthy quarterback, but that’s not going to happen. And for that reason, it stings more and more as time goes. An emotional Clifford said after the Ohio State loss that it feels like the team’s getting better, but it’s not stringing together wins when it needs them the most.

It’s not hard to fantasize about Penn State’s resume without the Illinois loss. Hell, it’s hard not to think about what would’ve happened if Clifford didn’t go down against the Hawkeyes. The Nittany Lions could easily be 8-0. But you can’t stand on the backs of a bunch of “what ifs” and hold a trophy at the end of the season.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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