Penn State's football team isn't bad. It's also insufficient

 Penn State was defeated 44-31 by Ohio State. Penn State's 11th straight loss to a top-10 opponent.

Penn State football
Penn State football

As the final seconds ticked away, Penn State Coach James Franklin removed his headset and made his way to midfield, flanked by two police officers, to shake hands with Ohio State Coach Ryan Day.

After receiving a bear hug from Penn State's athletic director, Pat Kraft, Franklin walked toward the student section and wrapped his arms around his two kids as the marching Blue Band performed the alma mater.

When the music stopped, Franklin made his way back to the sideline, where he perfunctorily fist-bumped his way down a receiving line of recruits before entering the Nittany Lions locker room through the tunnel.

It was a picture that had become all too familiar at Penn State, a school with a great football legacy but is still attempting to find its way back to the nation's elite more than a decade after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal rocked the program.

The Nittany Lions' 44-31 loss to second-ranked Ohio State on Saturday was just another indication that, while they aren't poor, they aren't good enough to beat the two behemoths in their Big Ten realm: Michigan, which beat them two weeks ago, and Ohio State.

With a blue-and-white-clad crowd of 108,433 rocking Beaver Stadium on a beautiful, sun-kissed afternoon and the inspired Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-2) nursing a fourth-quarter lead, the home team crumbled as it has so frequently against the Buckeyes (8-0, 5-0). This was Franklin's fourth victory over Penn State in the fourth quarter or overtime in nine seasons.

It was Penn State's 11th consecutive loss to a top-10 opponent, dating back to a Big Ten title game victory over Wisconsin in 2016.

"It's a heartbreaker because we had our chances," said quarterback Sean Clifford, a sixth-year senior who will graduate with only one victory — a 2019 victory over Michigan — over his two fiercest rivals. "I thought we had a good chance to win that game."

Nobody thwarted their intentions more than Ohio State defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound sophomore who was a wrecking ball with two sacks, a forced fumble, two interceptions — one for a touchdown — and a deflection intercepted by his sidekick, Zach Harrison.

Still, with 9:26 seconds remaining, Penn State freshman running back Kaytron Allen broke through the arms of Ohio State middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg below the line and slid across the goal line, putting Penn State ahead 21-16.

"We had them exactly where we wanted them," Joey Porter Jr., a junior cornerback and the son of former Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Joey Porter, said.

Allen's run, on fourth down from the one-yard line, ended a 13-play drive in which every play seemed poised to change the game's momentum. The drive was saved by two Ohio State penalties: third-down pass interference and an illegal formation on a missed field goal. Penn State converted one fourth-down conversion, added another on one of receiver Parker Washington's amazing catches, and had a touchdown reversed after a replay review determined tight end Brenton Strange recovered teammate Mitchell Tinsley's fumble just before the goal line. On the next play, Allen scored.

Even with the crowd cheering, Ohio State's offense, which had been thwarted for much of the afternoon, erupted. Quarterback C.J. Stroud completed a 21-yard pass to Marvin Harrison Jr., then connected with Emeka Egbuka for 13 yards before TreVeyon Henderson ran 41 yards for a touchdown.

Tuimoloau stripped the ball from Clifford after sacking him on Penn State's second play, then pounced on the loose ball at the Penn State 24-yard line. On the next play, Stroud passed to tight end Cade Stover over the middle and broke through three tackles to take a 30-21 lead.

Tuimoloau delivered the knockout punch when he intercepted his second pass and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown. He hadn't intercepted a pass since he was a sophomore in high school. "I kind of blacked out," he explained.

When Clifford returned to the sideline following the touchdown, he went right past Franklin without making eye contact. The two, like most coach-quarterback combinations, are the twin pillars of their team's successes and failures.

Clifford, 24, is much the same quarterback he was when he took over as starting in 2019 – a scrappy competitor who has struggled to propel his club beyond the better teams with his arm or decision-making. Clifford fumbled the ball over four times on the same day he set a Penn State quarterback record for touchdown passes.

"Obviously, the essential stat is wins and losses," said Clifford, who was greeted with boos when he took the field for the final time. "It's difficult to judge how I play individually. All I know is that we failed to take care of business."

Franklin, on the other hand, has yet to discover someone he likes more. Will Levis couldn't beat Clifford and is currently a freshman at Kentucky. Last season, Christian Veilleux was unable to unseat Clifford, and Drew Allar, a highly touted rookie, has been declared unworthy of unseating Clifford.

Clifford will leave at the end of the season, but Franklin will remain.

Sandy Barbour, who departed as Penn State's athletic director this summer, placed a new 10-year deal — worth $75 million plus incentives — on Franklin in November as a farewell gift, despite multiple mediocre seasons and frequent losses to rivals.

As a farewell gift, Sandy Barbour, who retired as Penn State's Franklin walked away from the questioner when asked to describe the disparity between Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan.

"They have good football teams," he stated. "We played really well today against Ohio State, had a chance to win the game, but made too many mistakes in a crucial time, which you can't do against a top-ranked opponent like that."

It's unclear whether Franklin will ever be able to heal the schism between the teams, but his contract guarantees that he'll get plenty of chances.


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