Penn State's toughness deficit rears its ugly head again in loss to Illinois
It’s all fun, fancy and exhilarating at Penn State, a high-gloss football program with all the latest bells and whistles.
The Generations of Greatness uniforms, very stylish. The neatly painted and manicured end zones. The pumped in sound.
Recruits, come on in to Beaver Stadium and check it out. Welcome to the show! White Outs, Stripe Outs. Fireworks.
It’s highly-packaged sports entertainment. Just start the cameras rolling, ABC, and James Franklin and company will do the rest.
And there’s nothing wrong with that icing on the cake, until … it becomes obvious that there is no cake.
Until a day like Saturday comes along — a cool, rainy Homecoming Saturday in State College — and Penn State runs into a bad actor hell-bent on changing the script. Illinois’ Fighting Illini played that role this time, exposing that Penn State had no foundation underneath its sweet outer layer.
Saturday, there was no football in Penn State football. Not in the classic sense of the word. No toughness. No power. No grit. No will. No indication that Penn State had figured out anything over its bye week, other than how to misdirect the media about the quarterback situation.
Against Illinois, the worst defense in the Big Ten, Penn State tried to establish its running game, even though first-string quarterback Sean Clifford was back from injury to start the game. Predictably, that failed. Keyvone Lee gained 21 yards on 2 carries to start the Lions’ second drive. Two plays later, Jordan Stout was punting again. Aside from those 2 carries, Penn State managed 41 yards on 27 carries. After those 2 carries, the offensive line was all out of push. Even with Lee’s 2 good carries and an 18-yarder by John Lovett, Penn State still averaged only 2.1 yards per carry.
All that struggle came against the 2nd-worst rushing defense in the B1G, one allowing 164.4 going in — more than 100 yards more than Penn State produced. Penn State goes 15 deep with offensive linemen who go at least 6-3 and 300 pounds. Are they soft, despite the efforts of celebrated strength coach Dwight Galt? Is 2nd-year line coach Phil Trautwein in over his head? Is the offense still transitioning to Mike Yurcich, the program’s third coordinator in as many seasons?
The common thread is Franklin, now in his 8th year and still running a psychologically fragile program. One tough loss leads to another, this time even with an extra week in between. In 2017 and 2018, Penn State followed 1-point losses to Ohio State with bad losses to Michigan State.
Whether the adversity comes from players lost to injury or a bit of bad weather after a bunch of sunny Saturdays, the Lions tend to fold against harder-nosed teams with seemingly way less to play for. They find a way to lose.
After the 9 overtimes and Penn State’s CFP hopes ended Saturday, Illinois had a 20-18 victory and Franklin had excuses.
He mentioned that “way too many guys” missed significant practice time during the week, including Clifford.
News flash, Coach. Other B1G teams have injuries and issues, too. (Illinois announced the loss of star LB Jake Hansen during the week.) But the good ones don’t turtle up at home in front of 105,001 paying customers. They don’t experiment with fixing a trouble spot in their game before having a victory firmly in hand. And they don’t find a way to lose to the worst team in the league in almost every statistical category while winning the turnover battle 3-0.
Good teams establish an identity and stick to it. A couple examples from around the B1G on Saturday:
- Wisconsin, which has discovered that Graham Mertz isn’t the savior QB it thought he was, grinded out a 30-13 victory over No. 25 Purdue while limiting Mertz to 8 throws.
- Minnesota also won with defense and its rushing game, playing to its identity despite being down to its third and fourth running backs. Tanner Morgan threw 12 times in a 34-16 thumping of Maryland.
- Michigan wore down Northwestern in the second half, turning a 10-7 halftime lead into a methodical 33-7 victory.
Weak-minded Penn State, on the other hand, didn’t play to its strength — throwing the ball — but rather played Illinois’ game, seemingly baited into a slugfest by Bret Bielema and its own foolish pride.
Even after Clifford connected on his first 3 pass attempts for 89 yards and Penn State’s only touchdown, Franklin and Yurcich kept trying to ignite the running game. Clifford threw only 6 more times in the first half. After halftime, he went 15-for-25, but for only 57 yards.
The line allowed 4 sacks and the run game produced just 7 yards in the third quarter and only 20 more after that.
Illinois probably would have won in regulation if it simply didn’t let Artur Sitkowski throw the ball at all. Sitkowski threw an interception and lost 2 fumbles under pressure from the speed guys on Penn State’s defense. When the Illini simply plowed ahead behind a 7-man offensive line, they piled up everything except a lot of points.
Illinois outdid Penn State in first downs (26-14), total yards (395-227), rushing yards (357-62), yards per rush (5.3-2.1), third-down conversions (9-18 vs. 4-17) and time of possession (36:25-23:35).
That’s how the No. 7 team in the country loses as a 23.5-point favorite despite holding the opposing QB to 38 passing yards. Apparently, the loss of senior captain PJ Mustipher hurts that much. The middle of Penn State’s D-line was a weak spot even before the team’s best tackle suffered a season-ending knee injury against Iowa. Now it’s a sieve.
Under Franklin, Penn State has recruited speed and athleticism and schemed to use it to maximum effect. It works when the guys in the trenches hold their own, but too often they don’t. Many of the big guys along the line are 4-star recruits, so their inability to match up physically is baffling.
Whatever the reason, it means Penn State can’t survive an off day from its quarterback. This year, that means Clifford. And let’s get one thing straight: The third-year starter looked plenty healthy enough to play. His passes had zip. He ran fine when trying to escape pressure. But he never ran by design or on a scramble, suggesting the staff over-protected him at the expense of the game plan, or he shouldn’t have been playing. One well-placed QB draw during 1 of the 7 one-play-per-side OT periods might have allowed Penn State to escape its fate.
Even a win wouldn’t have sugarcoated Saturday’s effort, though. Penn State has physical toughness issues at certain spots on the field, and mental toughness issues throughout its leadership.
What happened Saturday to the Lions doesn’t happen to Ohio State. Take Saturday night as an example. The Buckeyes didn’t outthink themselves, didn’t play into Indiana’s hands, didn’t whine or complain about injuries. They just hammered the Hoosiers 54-7 in ABC’s primetime game.
So next Saturday night in Columbus, again on ABC, No. 5 Ohio State (6-1) will host Penn State (5-2) as a double-digit favorite. And they’ll cover.
And then how fragile will Penn State be?