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Looking Back At Plays That Defined Penn State Football’s 2021 Season

After beginning the season with marque victories over No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 22 Auburn, Penn State football’s meteoritic rise to a 5-0 start, coupled with a top-four ranking nationally, came to a screeching halt toward the latter half of its campaign.

In its final seven conference matchups, James Franklin’s squad notched a trivial 2-5 record with only 4.2 points per game serving as the average margin of defeat. While four of the five losses came at the hands of nearly a third of the top 13 teams in the latest installment of the College Football Playoff rankings, the Nittany Lions certainly had their fair share of chances to shift the team’s losing ways into a successful season-ending stretch.

Although it’s difficult to recount sequences that ultimately derailed the Nittany Lions’ promising start, Penn State was truly just a few plays away from turning a five-loss regular season into one clear of any blemishes.

From Sean Clifford’s injury against Iowa to a crucial defensive scoop-and-score capped off by Ohio State, here are the most impactful plays in each Penn State loss that could have carried this year’s bunch into a being potential playoff spoiler.

Sean Clifford Upper Body Injury — Iowa

In just over a quarter of action at Kinnick Stadium, Clifford’s play propelled the Nittany Lions to an immediate 14-point lead over the No. 3 ranked Hawkeyes. The Ohio native diced Iowa’s secondary for 146 yards through the air and an additional 36 yards on the ground to keep Mike Yurcich’s attack on the field in several timely down-and-distance scenarios.

On third and seven from the Hawkeye 14-yard line early in the second quarter, Clifford was unable to evade an unblocked Jack Campbell, who nailed him directly in the upper body area. The hit, courtesy of Campbell’s stout 6’5″, 243-pound frame, sent Penn State’s prized signal-caller straight to the injury tent and, subsequently, to the locker room, where he learned he was unable to finish the matchup.

As Clifford watched the remainder of the game in street clothes, Ta’Quan Roberson received the keys to Yurcich’s system in his first meaningful minutes under center. The hostile environment forced seven false start penalties between Roberson and the offensive line, along with producing just 36 passing yards in the final three quarters.

Without Clifford, Penn State was never able to rekindle the same offensive rhythm it possessed prior to his injury, as it produced just three more points without him at the helm. After playing stout bend-don’t-break defense all day long, the Nittany Lion defense surrendered a 44-yard touchdown pass in the final three minutes to seal a 23-20 victory, giving Penn State its first loss of the season.

Jaquan Brisker’s Potential Game-Sealing Interception — Illinois

Two weeks following the Nittany Lions’ initial defeat, James Franklin’s group suffered its second-straight loss as 24-point favorites to a struggling Illinois squad at Beaver Stadium. Despite entering the matchup with a 2-5 record and an injured starting quarterback, the Fighting Illini tallied 357 rushing yards behind the efforts of Chase Brown and Joshua McCray in Penn State’s worst defensive output of the season.

Following a 10-10 tie after four quarters in regulation, both squads needed nine overtime periods to break the stalemate, equating to the longest game in college football history.

Despite being finished off in the ninth installment of extra time, the Nittany Lions could have ended the game on defense immediately Jordan Stout converted a 31-yard field goal attempt in its first offensive possession.

On third down, the Illini tried to dial up a trick play to move the chains by calling a reverse, leading to a pass thrown by receiver Casey Washington. Although Washington’s target appeared open, he lofted a dangerous ball that landed right in the lap of Jaquan Brisker, but the first-team All-Big Ten selection was unable to haul it in and seal the game.

Ultimately, quarterback Brandon Peters was able to find Washington in the back of the end zone in the final overtime to outlast the depleted Nittany Lions on homecoming.

Jerron Cage Scoop-And-Score — Ohio State

Entering the game as nearly three-touchdown underdogs, the counted-out Nittany Lions arguably played their toughest game of the season against No. 5 Ohio State in Columbus.

Behind Clifford’s steady arm, Penn State was able to mount a 13-play, 88-yard drive in its second series to establish a 7-0 lead midway in the opening quarter. With no signs of being injured, the third-year starter led the offense by completing 5-of-6 passes for 72 yards against the Buckeye secondary.

Brent Pry’s defense was able to hold Ryan Day’s attack to a field goal the following possession, which immediately showed that Penn State would be able to compete, if not outlast, the thought-to-be overmatched Buckeyes.

Then, with just over two minutes remaining until halftime, disaster struck for Penn State. Directly following a 38-yard touchdown completion by CJ Stroud to Chris Olave, Ohio State capitalized by scoring twice in under two minutes courtesy of a defensive touchdown by tackle Jerron Cage.

Although Penn State was able to pick up a field goal before halftime, the Nittany Lions trailed by seven points at the halfway mark due to a game-changing break in favor of Ohio State. With just one divisional loss in the last four years, the Buckeyes have shown that they cannot be stopped without flawless execution by the opposition.

Poorly Executed Fake Field Goal Attempt — Michigan

Early and often in the late-season battle of conference heavyweights, Penn State was able to find success against Michigan’s highly-touted defense. On its opening series, the offense converted on 3rd and 17, 3rd and eight, and 4th and six, showing it had enough playmakers to put points up at the expense of the Wolverines.

The Nittany Lions were able to capture an immediate 3-0 lead on the first drive and forced a three and out on its first defensive showing of the afternoon. Similar to its drive prior, Yurcich’s group produced a 14-play sequence, lasting 4:46.

Instead of finishing off the impressive possession with points, Penn State elected to try its second trick play of the quarter with a fake field goal attempt on the Michigan two-yard line. Holder Rafael Checa caught the snap and threw a kneeled-pass to Jordan Stout, who fumbled after being engulfed by Vincent Gray.

The Wolverines then returned the loose ball to their own 29-yard line, setting up favorable field possession on a drive where the visitors should have faced at least a 6-0 deficit in favor of Penn State. Despite not showing success in short-yardage situations throughout the season, the Nittany Lions probably would have been better off committing to a play, rather than exiting the field without a score of any kind.

While other plays, including a critical defensive mistake leading to a 47-yard touchdown reception to Erick All of Michigan and a late-game injury to Jahan Dotson, certainly dictated the final outcome, no play derailed Penn State’s initial momentum more than the failed trickery try late in the first quarter.

Keyvone Lee Fourth Quarter Fumble — Michigan State

To say the fourth quarter in Spartan Stadium was a disaster for Penn State would be an understatement. The Nittany Lions entered the final 15 minutes down by just three points but kicked off the period by turning a 12-play drive into a critical turnover on downs at the Michigan State 16-yard line.

The struggles continued as Keyvone Lee fumbled at midfield, which once again gave the Spartans a short field with time quickly winding off the game clock. Although Lee’s fumble isn’t the reason for Penn State’s loss, the shift in momentum served as a catalyst for several other critical mistakes down the stretch.

Following Lee’s mishap, Michigan State marched 48 yards on seven plays for its fourth touchdown of the afternoon, which extended the lead to 10 points with just over five minutes remaining. Just as the Nittany Lions looked as though they would exit the field unscathed, Payton Throne tossed a jump ball to Jayden Reed on 4th and 15, who made a one-on-one circus catch over defender Johnny Dixon.

With the time dwindling and a 10-point deficit lingering on the scoreboard, Michigan State all but sealed the deal on the next play of the game. On the kickoff, returner John Lovett was rocked by Ma’A Gaoteote, resulting in another fumble at the expense of Penn State, which set the Spartans up in prime real estate at the opposing 29.

Sean Clifford led a 13-play scoring drive to cap off the afternoon for the offense, but it wasn’t enough to outlast Michigan State, as the program won its 10th game of the season in a sloppy 30-27 performance.


At the end of each season, teams of all calibers will ultimately be defined as a success or failure based on their final record. Good teams find ways to pull out tight matchups, and Penn State couldn’t surmount one-score deficits in four of five losses suffered throughout the regular season.

While it would be appropriate to label the Nittany Lions as an underachieving squad, it isn’t entirely fair to call Penn State a “bad” team after 12 games. All in all, Penn State did push four top-13 teams to the wire despite not being able to walk away with a signature victory.

For Penn State to take the next step as a program, it will need to start closing out tight matchups against quality opponents. Although it didn’t succeed in that field this season, the Nittany Lions showed why football truly is a game of inches.

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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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