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Penn State Caps Off Fall From Grace With Messy Loss To Spartans

It’s been exactly 700 days since Penn State topped Memphis in the 2019 Cotton Bowl.

Since then, the Nittany Lions are 11-10. They finished No. 4 in the Big Ten East, which is the lowest mark since 2015 — the first year Penn State was given a full 85 scholarships following NCAA sanctions.

Following their loss to Michigan State, the Nittany Lions have proven they’re not a contender in the Big Ten anymore. It’s a fall from grace that’s been happening for 700 days, and it culminated in Franklin’s 100th game as head coach.

The narrative following a 4-5 2020 season was that Penn State played poorly in a flukey year impacted by COVID restrictions, opt-outs, and injuries, albeit every team in the country faced similar situations. Now that the dust has settled on the 2021 regular season, the Nittany Lions hold the same 4-5 conference record that they did last year.

After a 5-0 start, it seemed like last year truly was a fluke. It felt like the 2019 version of Penn State was back like nothing happened. But, even the “big” wins from that bounce-back stretch don’t seem so big anymore. Auburn is unranked and finished with a .500 record. Wisconsin pulled off a solid run but just fell to an unranked Minnesota team. Penn State had one of the toughest schedules in the country but doesn’t have a solid resume.

Michigan has shown the Big Ten what having a fluke year really is like. Jim Harbaugh’s rallied his crew atop the Big Ten East and handed Ohio State its first divisional loss since Penn State took down the Buckeyes in 2016. After mustering just two wins last year, the Wolverines truly bounced back.

But on the day Michigan proved it could hang with the big dogs by beating Ohio State, Penn State failed to do much of anything impressive against the Spartans in a snowy East Lansing. The Nittany Lions lost three fumbles and were embarrassed in the trenches in yet another oh-so-close loss.

In the 10 games it played against Power Five teams, Penn State’s offense never scored more than 30 points. A solid year-long defensive effort has been wasted by a chronic inability to run the football and pass protect. When the snow kept coming down in Spartan Stadium, these flaws were put on full display. Keyvone Lee mustered just 79 rushing yards, which were largely thanks to a few explosive gains.

With a mystery bowl game on the horizon, this isn’t the last we’ve seen of the 7-5 Nittany Lions. James Franklin made it clear after the game that the season isn’t over, but what will one more game do? Star players might opt-out and a poor opponent could tee Penn State up for an embarrassment.

The day after Franklin signed his new contract, he emphasized the need for Penn State to reach the “next plateau” in college football — a similar message to one the head coach shared after the “good, great, elite bowl” of 2018. The Nittany Lions were a top-5 team at one point this season, but they’ve certainly gone down a plateau instead of up.

When you look at the Big Ten standings, it’s clear Penn State isn’t the perennial conference title contender it seemed to be after the 2019 season. In the East alone, three other teams have double-digit win totals compared to the Nittany Lions’ seven. They’re No. 9 in the full Big Ten standings, behind programs like Purdue, Minnesota, and Illinois.

It is, however, hard to ignore the adversity the team has faced this year. Penn State is an injury away from likely claiming wins over Iowa and Illinois. Who knows what would’ve happened against Ohio State and Michigan if those previous games were won. Maybe then it would’ve been safe to call this season a bounce-back one.

On the bright side, Franklin is bringing in one of his better recruiting classes next year. With a new contract, he should have all the resources necessary to develop his top-tier prospects into top-tier players. But now, the road ahead seems much more uphill than before. A “one plateau” leap has turned into a “two plateau” leap.

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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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