Penn State football: What's at stake in the final game of the 2021 regular season?
This season started in feel-good fashion for Penn State, and it can end that way next Saturday against Michigan State.
The in-between wasn’t much fun for anyone involved in Nittany Lions football, but the regular-season finale offers James Franklin’s squad a chance to re-establish itself in the Big Ten pecking order.
Let’s face it, 8-4 has a much better ring to it than 7-5, and might save Penn State from having to worry about playing in Yankee Stadium in the middle of winter in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Beyond that, how cool would it be for the much-maligned Franklin to take his team into East Lansing and make Michigan State’s leadership instantly regret even considering forking over almost $10 million per year over 10 years to 2nd-year head coach Mel Tucker.
The end of this season could serve as a new beginning for Franklin, who recently told a small gathering of supporters that he’s “not going anywhere,” seemingly quelling persistent speculation that he was destined for USC or some other program.
A win on the road against a highly-ranked opponent that was a serious CFP contender before losing to Ohio State would boost a lot of spirits in and around Happy Valley.
Penn State (7-4, 4-4) should have a great shot against MSU (9-2, 5-2), which has to be emotionally down with its Playoff hopes dashed on the heels of a 56-7 beatdown in Columbus. The script is flipped from 2017 and 2018, when Penn State suffered its first loss of the season to Ohio State and then suffered a narrow loss the next week to the Spartans. The Lions have won the past 2 years’ matchups handily, and could do so again.
For as frustrating as Penn State’s rough patch was as it lost 4 of 5 after a 5-0 start, its losses came by 2, 3, 4 and 9 points. The Lions have been right there in each loss. Against the key players in the B1G East, the effective difference between the Lions and Spartans is that MSU rallied for a narrow win over Michigan while PSU couldn’t hold a late lead against the Wolverines.
But after blanking Rutgers, an unprecedented 2nd B1G shutout of the season for the Lions’ defense, Penn State looks totally capable of further bursting the Spartans’ bubble.
The Lions match up well with MSU. The defense bends quite a bit (though not so much vs. the Scarlet Knights) but plays tough in the red zone, and Sean Clifford and/or Christian Veilleux should be salivating to go against the worst pass defense in the nation. If Penn State can recapture its formula from the 5-0 start that had it at No. 4 in the AP Poll, it’ll have a great shot to win. That formula includes winning the turnover battle, controlling field position thanks to Jordan Stout’s leg and making clutch plays late.
The unknown for Saturday is just how badly Penn State wants to win. Will Clifford play if he’s less than 100 percent? Will Jahan Dotson and others likely to enter the NFL Draft risk injury to take the field for a team playing out the string? Will Franklin and his staff work in younger players to begin getting a feel for the initial 2022 depth chart? In the 28-0 victory over Rutgers, Veilleux had a strong debut subbing in early for an injured Clifford, and freshman WR Malick Meiga and freshman OT Landon Tengwall played key roles.
Prior to the 2020 season, Penn State had established itself as the top challenger to Ohio State in the Big Ten, consistently playing the Buckeyes tough and at least relatively close. If the Lions weren’t the clear No. 2 team in the conference, they were certainly on a short list of teams in the conversation. Now, after going 4-5 in 2020 and losing to lightly-regarded Illinois this season, Penn State isn’t carrying much more cachet than Purdue or Minnesota. With a loss against MSU, Penn State will have back-to-back sub-.500 B1G records for the first time since 2003-04.
The program can turn that perception back around in a hurry with a victory in East Lansing, especially if it does so in convincing fashion. If the Lions knock the Spartans down a peg, it sets up the possibility that both teams finish 9-4. Such a scenario certainly wouldn’t hurt the program’s chance of holding on to recruits over the next couple years.
So, what’s at stake next Saturday for the Nittany Lions? Other than the Land Grant Trophy? A better bowl game, a better vibe and maybe a brighter immediate future. The flip side is that Penn State could still finish 7-6 and leave itself looking like a program in decline.