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Importance Of Penn State Football’s Final Stretch Can’t Be Overstated

Just a quarter of Penn State football’s 2021 regular season remains, and it couldn’t get much more important for the Nittany Lions.

James Franklin’s group, now boasting a 6-3 record but still unranked in the eyes of the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, could make a real run at a New Year’s Six Bowl by running the table in these final few weeks. A couple of trip-ups, however, and the Nittany Lions could find themselves in a less-than-stellar postseason game.

“Being able to finish the season on a positive note is really important,” Franklin said during his Tuesday press conference. “Obviously, the game this weekend, and being at home with a great supporting cast in the stands, is gonna be really important.

“Every win is important, and when you’re able to stack them like we did in the beginning of the year with five straight wins — we want to try to do that every week,” Franklin added.

Penn State started the season 5-0, but things took a turn in the blink of an eye when Sean Clifford went down with an injury against Iowa. The Nittany Lions gave up their 17-3 lead to the Hawkeyes and didn’t win a game for three more weeks, as they followed the bye with an inexplicable defeat to Illinois and fell to the Buckeyes in Columbus to finish October.

As frustrating as that stretch was, Franklin also noted Tuesday that returning several key players to full health will be key. Outside of the obvious knock that Clifford took at quarterback, the Nittany Lions have faced several other injures. Just this past weekend in College Park, defensive stars Jesse Luketa and Jonathan Sutherland were both held out of the contest.

“We were able to get some guys back from a health perspective, which has been really important for us,” Franklin said. “We anticipate doing that again on Saturday — being able to get a few guys back.”

In case you didn’t already know, Franklin and his group love to preach the 1-0 mentality. The idea that no one game is bigger than the other is repeated in order to block out noise and avoid looking past an opponent. However, it’s hard not to map out the rest of the schedule if Penn State can pull off the upset over No. 6 Michigan this weekend.

A win over the Wolverines would unequivocally place the Nittany Lions in the CFP’s top 25. Follow that with a contest against Rutgers, which you would hope can be chalked up as a victory for Penn State, and a trip to East Lansing to finish the season suddenly has massive implications.

Penn State would sit at 8-3 with a fairly impressive resume. The loss to the Fighting Illini hurts, but wins over Auburn and Wisconsin — both of whom are currently ranked in the Playoff’s top 25 — are not small feats. Even a loss to a great Michigan State team would leave the Nittany Lions 8-4, still considered a strong team in a deep conference.

A loss to Jim Harbaugh and the maize and blue, however, and things could fall apart quickly for Penn State. The College Football Playoff Selection Committee still clearly knocks Penn State for the Nittany Lions’ ugly three-game losing streak, so Franklin’s group has to do something to change that in these final few weeks. If Penn State can’t beat Michigan, a win on the road against the Spartans, who are ranked one spot below the Wolverines despite beating them two weeks ago, would be a tall order.

Suddenly, a 7-5 record and a loss to Illinois on the resume would likely leave Penn State battling in the Pinstripe or Music City Bowls — a far cry from the New Year’s Six hopes that some are still holding on to.

Either way, it all starts with the Wolverines at noon Saturday at Beaver Stadium. With a win over Harbaugh’s top-10 group, it’ll be an exciting finish over Thanksgiving break for these Nittany Lions.

“We need this place rocking on Saturday,” Franklin said. “12 o’clock start. The breakfast and brunch tailgating will be phenomenal. We need everybody in the stadium as early as possible.”

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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