The battle for the Land Grant Trophy was a perfect synopsis of the Penn State season: an ugly start with a strong finish.

Penn State came back from a 21-10 hole to win its third straight game to finish the regular season 3-5. The Nittany Lions still don’t know what next week looks like or if they’ll play in a bowl, but finishing the year on a high note assuages some of the pain of the first 5 games.

“To find a way to show that type of heart, to show that type of belief and stay together and battle through,” James Franklin said, “I’m very proud of them. It’s not easy to do.”

There was a lot to like about Penn State winning on Senior Day in front of no crowd. These were the 10 best things:

1. Resilience

Down by 11 and trailing at halftime for the 5th time this season, it would have been easy to throw in the towel. With no decision yet on the Big Ten’s Champions Week, who could blame players for just calling it quits so close to the finish line of an emotionally exhausting season.

Penn State responded by outscoring the Spartans 29-3 in the second half. Michigan State had just 147 yards in the final 30 minutes, 66 of which came on the final drive. There was a stretch of 3 straight series in which the Spartans totaled minus-21 yards. Not a bad way to close out the final game in Beaver Stadium.

2. Jahan Dotson returns

Despite Penn State’s success over the previous 2 games, Dotson had been pretty quiet. In each of Penn State’s wins, he had just 30 receiving yards. Against the Spartans, he reintroduced himself.

Dotson finished with a game-high 8 receptions for 108 yards and made a catch on a 2-point conversion in the 3rd quarter to pull Penn State within a field goal. He also returned a punt 81 yards for a touchdown, becoming just the third Big Ten player since 2000 with a punt return touchdown and 100 yards receiving in the same game.

3. Returns in general

Penn State had done literally nothing all year on kickoff returns. Fair catch after fair catch, the Lions seemed to perpetually start their drives at their own 25. With no Devyn Ford this game, Lamont Wade actually made an effort on 3 kickoffs, including a season-long return of 37 yards. Throw in Dotson’s big punt return, and what is usually a net-nothing for Penn State was finally beneficial for the team.

4. Sean Clifford the game manager

It’s not typically a compliment for a QB to be labeled as a game manager, but for the second time in his last three games, Clifford didn’t throw an interception. Most of his passes were quick slants and short crossing routes, but Parker Washington was able to turn two passes into 26-yard and 49-yard completions.

Cliffford’s 232 passing yards were the most he’s had since Maryland beat Penn State in Week 3, and he once again finished as Penn State’s leading rusher with 48 yards on the ground, including a 31-yard touchdown. At this point of his career, Penn State knows Clifford’s limitations. This is the type of performance the Lions will need to consistently get from the redshirt junior.

5. Parker Washington, certified stud

Fan were worried if Dotson would have any help this season outside of Pat Freiermuth. With the tight end done for the season with an injury, freshman receiver Washington has quickly emerged as a go-to target for Clifford.

Washington caught 4 passes for 95 yards an 2 touchdowns against Michigan State, including a 49-yard score in the 4th quarter to help Penn State pull away for good. Washington now has 6 receiving touchdowns on the season and 4 games with at least 70 yards. He has at least two more seasons in Happy Valley and just may go on to have one of the more prolific receiving careers in Penn State’s history.

6. Flipping awesome

Not one, but two flips for Penn State today. Jonathan Sutherland earns a higher score than Keyvone Lee for degree of difficulty in traffic.

7. Will Levis threw a pass, and then he threw another and one more!

After mounting speculation, Levis does have an operational arm. Following 27 straight rushes spanning the course of 3 games, Levis finally threw a pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith in the 3rd quarter.

Levis finished the day 3-for-3 for 54 yards and demonstrated some touch on a 36-yard completion to Dotson. Levis still got his work as a short-yardage rusher in the “Falcon” package for 15 carries for 36 yards, but adding a passing threat moving forward will be crucial for Penn State assuming Levis sticks around for next year.

8. Shane Simmons starts, stands out

The former 4-star recruit has had trouble staying on the field over the course of his career, but the senior took advantage of his first start with Jayson Oweh not dressing for the game.

Simmons finished with 7 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a pass break-up. He was constantly around the ball. It was a terrific finish to a long career and makes you think what could have been had he been able to stay healthy.

9. Seniors shine

This obviously wasn’t how Penn State’s seniors envisioned their collegiate career coming to a close. Recent COVID-19 mitigation policies set in place Saturday morning banned any fans or parents from being allowed in the stadium during the game.

Despite the lack of a raucous atmosphere, seniors Jaquan Brisker and Shaka Toney made significant contributions, finishing with 9 and 5 tackles, respectively. Brisker also had an interception that he later fumbled during the return. Lamont Wade helped in the return game and Antonio Shelton chipped in 1.5 sacks. They all got to ring the victory bell one final time.

10. The Land Grant Trophy

There hasn’t been much reason to celebrate this year. Even if there was, virus protocols make it difficult to party after a win. To see the smiling faces of all the players as they carefully trotted out the behemoth Land Grant Trophy was one of the best moments of the season. All is well that ends well.