In Season Defined By Tight Losses, Penn State’s Focus Must Turn To Eliminating Fixable Mistakes

Penn State football’s 7-5 record for the 2021 season is full of “what ifs?”

What if Sean Clifford doesn’t get hurt against Iowa? What if the Nittany Lions escape the two-point conversion battle against Illinois? What if Erick All doesn’t break free over the middle to give Michigan the win at Beaver Stadium?

The “what ifs?” in Saturday’s loss to Sparty circulated around special teams errors and horribly timed turnovers. Jordan Stout left four points on the board by missing a 27-yard field goal in the second quarter and whiffing on the extra point following Daequan Hardy’s clutch pick-six.

The Nittany Lions eventually fell by three points to Mel Tucker’s squad. A breeze in the other direction or a better-struck ball by Stout, and we could be having a very different conversation right now.

What if Keyvone Lee and John Lovett didn’t fumble when they did? The first of the pair had nowhere to go on a 3rd and 1 carry, and put the ball on the snow-covered turf of Spartan Stadium. Already holding a three-point lead inside of ten minutes left, Payton Thorne and the Michigan State offense took three minutes to drive down Penn State’s end of the field off the turnover.

The Spartans capped off the drive with a touchdown on 4th and 15. As inexcusable as that is, the Nittany Lions still had a fighting chance down ten with just over five minutes left to play.

That deficit would’ve been six had Stout hit his field goals. But before that could even enter the minds of Penn State fans, John Lovett fumbled on the kick return, and Michigan State promptly took over once again in Nittany Lion territory.

With that, the Spartans ran a little bit more than a minute off the clock and forced Penn State to use timeouts. James Franklin’s team was left to hope for a miracle. Despite a touchdown by Parker Washington to finish things up, a failed onside kick attempt ensured that miracle wasn’t coming to chilly East Lansing.

College football is a strange sport. Anything can happen, and luck — good or bad — can have a clear hand in the outcome.

As we’ve already discussed, Penn State has had some bad luck of late. Dating back to last year, the Nittany Lions were seemingly affected by the COVID pandemic more so than other programs, and this year’s injuries to key players had roles in some ugly losses. Even on Saturday, it was pretty unlucky that the Nittany Lions’ special teams unit played such a large role on an ugly, cold, and snowy day in Michigan.

When a team goes 7-5, however, bad luck and “shoulda, woulda, coulda” moments get old pretty fast. For Franklin and his Nittany Lions, coming close against talented teams but being held back by poorly timed errors is getting pretty damn old.

All of Penn State’s losses this season were by single-digits. In fact, besides the Ohio State game, the Nittany Lions lost by one-possession on all occasions. Outside of Illinois, all of the defeats came against squads that were and are still currently ranked in the top 25.

Based off of that, it’s hard not to admit that this is, in some ways, a good football team. If not good, then the Nittany Lions aren’t bad, either.

Quite honestly, it’s hard to judge where this team stands at the moment. Good football teams find ways to win, and that hasn’t always been Penn State’s MO in 2021. The Nittany Lions are a couple plays and avoided injuries away from a much better record — there is truly no arguing that. But at some point, you have to focus on overcoming those ugly plays or frustrating knocks rather than dwelling on what could’ve been.

As James Franklin noted in his postgame press conference, however, the season is not over.

This loss to Michigan State was yet another example of Penn State failing to overcome a bundle of mistakes this season. But, the Nittany Lions will have a chance to prove their 7-5 record is not indicative of who they actually are in whichever bowl game they get this December.

The Pinstripe and Music City Bowls are both popular predicted destinations for Penn State at the moment. Most Nittany Lion fans would admit that neither of those were circled on their calendars entering this 2021 campaign. But the margin of error is clearly tiny in college football, and Penn State is quite literally a few plays away from playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl rather than one of those destinations.

That fact doesn’t help ease any of the frustrations of this season. Rather, it should serve as inspiration for each member of the team — coaching staff included — to make changes that will eliminate those small mistakes that add up to a loss.

Whether or not that happens over the course of this new James Franklin era remains to be seen. But it should certainly be the focus for a team that’s now gone 11-10 over its past two seasons.

Your ad blocker is on.

Please choose an option below.

Sign up for our e-mail newsletter:
Support quality journalism:
Purchase a Subscription!

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]

‘It Was A Pretty Memorable Experience’: Penn State Club Baseball Wins Back-To-Back National Titles

After winning the Club Baseball World Series in 2023, the team repeated in 2024.

Four-Star Edge Rusher Max Granville Commits To Penn State Football

Granville chose the Nittany Lions over Texas A&M and Oklahoma.

Penn State Student Leaders Pen Funding Request To Pennsylvania Government Officials

The students argued an investment in Penn State by state government leaders was an investment in Pennsylvania.