I have been racking my brain for the better part of three days now trying to figure out what can be said about the state of Penn State Football. Just about two-and-a-half weeks back, the Lions were on the precipice of a No. 2 ranking and every goal squarely in front of them. Then, on a fateful third-down play, seemingly everything changed in an instant.
From the moment Sean Clifford took that hit in Iowa City, nothing has gone right for the Nittany Lions, including on the ensuing Hawkeye drive. For about seven quarters of football now, the Nittany Lions have been a shell of the team that raced out to a 5-0 record to start the season behind a dominant defense, and offense that was finding more of a rhythm on a weekly basis. Iowa came back in dramatic fashion, and then in one of the most shocking Penn State games in a generation, lowly Illinois was able to physically dominate the Lions on the line of scrimmage, en route to a 20-18 win in nine overtimes.
On the heels of that massive upset, one that all but ended Penn State's hopes for achieving any sort of significant goal in 2021, word leaked that James Franklin had hired, apparently over the summer, college football super-agent Jimmy Sexton. Fans of the sport know that Sexton is basically synonymous with getting the sports' best coaches paid significant sums of money. That's not exactly insignificant when two of the biggest jobs in the sport are open in Los Angeles and Baton Rouge.
I've written a couple of times about the program being at a crossroads, and this, at least on some level, feels like another one of those major inflection points. The Illinois loss is just not the type of thing that you certainly expect, and to a large degree, not the type of thing that can ever happen to a program with the aspirations of Penn State. That is not to say there aren't perfectly valid, uncontrollable explanations for aspects of what took place. Clifford was clearly not himself, PJ Mustipher is out for the season, and according to the coaching staff, several players missed significant practice time.
But with all of that said, and as Craig wrote on Monday, Illinois isn't some middle-of-the-road team that if things break right (or wrong, I suppose) will jump up and bite you. No, just two weeks prior they were shut out at home by Wisconsin after allowing nearly 400 yards on the ground, and not even hitting the century mark themselves in total offense. With apologies to the hard-working Illini players, the Nittany Lions' depth of talent, albeit inexperienced, should have been able to at least find a way to scratch out a win.
In the course of about 17 days now, we've gone from visions of Indianapolis and a playoff berth to wondering where wins six and seven will ever come from. And with the added layer of intrigue surrounding the head coach, the uncertainty has reached a level I have not seen around a Nittany Lion football team since early in the 2016 season.
Now, I think we're fooling ourselves if we think there's any way Penn State can find a way to win in Columbus for the first time in ten years, but I suppose stranger things have happened. But would anyone be altogether shocked if the Lions, with a healthier QB, scraped together a win at home against a very good, but not invincible Michigan team, or found a way to take home the Land Grant Trophy in East Lansing? That is to say nothing of a trip to College Park or Senior Day vs. Rutgers.
It would certainly not be the season many of us were envisioning at the end of the first quarter in Iowa City, but probably one many of us would've signed up for back in August when the list of unknowns around the Nittany Lions was not particularly short. But with the added layer of "will he or won't he" from Franklin, and a top-five recruiting class featuring the likes of Drew Allar, Kaedan Saunders, and Dani Dennis-Sutton poised to sign in less than two months, the stakes are certainly high.
Regardless of how things ultimately play out over the regular season's final five weeks, there is no denying that it will play a significant role in where the Penn State football program stands in the bigger picture when the calendar turns to 2022.