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For Penn State, an Inexplicable, Withering Two-Game Meltdown

The Lions have taken back-to-back gut-punches before. But not like this Iowa-Illinois stretch.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Penn State coach James Franklin stood in the Beaver Stadium tunnel Saturday, staring distantly, summoning the will to explain a nine-overtime loss to Illinois. He has confronted these moments before, trying to explain a worse loss after a bad loss, but this time felt different.

"Obviously we did not have our guys ready to play," Franklin said after the Lions inexplicably fell to Illinois 20-18. "I think obviously there's a difference between playing Iowa on the road and having that type of loss with the type of injuries we had going into our bye week. But at the end of the day, all that matters is did we get the job done today? And we did not today. And I did not today."

Where to begin with the first nine-overtime game (one played under the new two-point conversion rules) in college football history? How about two weeks ago, when Penn State led Iowa 17-3 in the second half and looked on the edge of an offensive detonation?

Since quarterback Sean Clifford's 4-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter against the Hawkeyes, Penn State's offense has scored one (1!) touchdown in seven regulation quarters. Then it went 0-for-2 in the standard overtime and 1-for-7 on conversion attempts in the quirky new overtime format.

The result was a humiliating loss that followed a debilitating loss of another sort, the latest such tortured two-game stretch through which Penn State (5-2) has lived under Franklin.

You remember them: 2014's double-overtime loss to Ohio State, with its officiating "technical difficulties," that followed a five-point loss to Michigan.

Or 2017's once-in-a-century weather delay at Michigan State, which contributed to a 27-24 loss that occurred seven days after a bitter 39-38 loss to Ohio State. Or even the following year, when the Lions again dropped consecutive games to Ohio State and Michigan State, this time with a bye week in between.

But this two-game stretch — these two oh-so-winnable games — marked perhaps the biggest double gut punch of Franklin's career. Consider these bleak numbers:

  • Penn State committed eight false starts against Iowa
  • It scored three points on three turnovers against Illinois
  • It managed 128 yards rushing in the last six quarters
  • It has scored one touchdown in its last 23 possessions of regulation
  • It has a combined 27-percent completion rate on third down in two games
  • Illinois threw for 38 yards

The downward spiral came rapidly and revolves primarily around the offense. Two weeks ago, Penn State disintegrated after Clifford was injured, throwing an unprepared backup quarterback to the wolves in Iowa.

Ta'Quan Roberson's offense crossed midfield twice, false-started those eight times and produced a field goal. Iowa scored the game's last 13 points, won 23-20, and Penn State left Iowa City with five injured players, including Clifford.

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Franklin said Saturday that, even after the bye week, Penn State had "too many guys" who played without being able to practice at full-speed last week. That included Clifford, who started Saturday, pronounced himself "fine" and not limited and then led an offense that produced a season-low (by 60) 227 total yards.

Clifford clearly was limited in his ability to run, which Franklin acknowledged, and that spilled into the rest of the offense. Penn State continues to lack any appreciably consistent run game (averaging 2.1 yards per carry) and, for really the first time this season, labored in the run defense.

Illinois ran seven-man offensive lines at Penn State all day, adding quarterback sneaks from Artur Sitkowski to the corner-beating, cutback machine that was Chase Brown. Before leaving with an injury in overtime, Brown rushed for 223 yards on 33 carries, becoming the first 200-yard rusher against Penn State in 18 years. Still, the Lions allowed just 10 points in regulation.

Ultimately, Illinois beat Penn State with its backup quarterback (Brandon Peters replaced the injured Sitkowski) and No. 2 running back in overtime. Peters threw the game-winning pass to Casey Washington, leaving Penn State's defense to wonder what just happened.

"Guys are down, very distraught," defensive end Jesse Luketa said. "They're hurt."

The list of what-ifs clouding Penn State's past two games is extensive. What if Penn State could have managed a consistent snap count with its backup quarterback against Iowa? What if the defense had defended better a play-action touchdown pass in the fourth quarter?

And on Saturday, what if Roberson had started? ("We felt like Sean gave us the best opportunity," Franklin said.) What if safety Jaquan Brisker had gripped a little tighter the overtime interception had had on an attempted trick-play pass to Sitkowski? ("That's a play I should have made," Brisker said.) What if Clifford, under pressure, didn't overthrow KeAndre Lambert-Smith in the end zone under pressure in the first half?

What if Penn State had been able to convert a trick play of its own, with left-handed tight end Tyler Warren throwing just short of Clifford on a conversion attempt in overtime? And what if Penn State simply had been able to score when handed possession at Illinois' 22-yard line on a sack-fumble sequence in the third quarter?

"There was plenty of plays and plenty of opportunities for us to end it," Franklin said, "and either we did not execute, or we did not make plays when we had opportunities to do so. And that's on the offense and defense."

The game wasn't a masterpiece by any stretch. Penn State and Illinois combined to go 0-for-10 in the first five sessions of conversion overtime. That's difficult, especially, as Clifford said, the team added more conversion plays this season specifically because of the new rule.

But Penn State had no business losing this game, even after the situational mess at Iowa. Was this the worst loss of Franklin's eight years at Penn State? Under the circumstances, it probably was.