There are any number of reasons for Penn State’s turnaround this season.
There’s the revamped running game, as the Nittany Lions have rushed for at least 245 yards in three of the last five games.
Another example is the successful rotating of both Sean Clifford and Will Levis into the offense, with Clifford finding targets like Parker Washington and Jahan Dotson, while Levis bulldozes defenses in short-yardage situations. In such instances, Levis essentially turns into a fullback, which should please a certain number of Penn State fans who have asked James Franklin when the team will recruit for such a position.
The Nittany Lions have also taken better care of the football and played lock-down defense in nice spurts, while also impacting the game through special teams.
Clifford summed it up nicely following the team’s latest win on Saturday.
“We’re just back to Penn State football,” he said. “It’s just that basic.”
“Things haven’t gone our way all the time this year and we understand that. It’s been a weird year. No one’s going to deny that, it’s just been a very odd year, inside the facility, outside the facility. There’s a lot going on and the people just don’t understand. And I understand, we’ve got to win games, that’s just the fact of the matter but it’s nice to see that the team’s playing complete games.
When the offense needs help, the defense is stepping up. When the defense needs help, the offense is stepping up. Special teams are making plays, that’s Penn State football. That’s who we are, and that’s who we pride ourselves to be. I’m just happy for these guys, happy that I can be a part of it. We’ve just got to keep on grinding because we keep talking about how we want to get as many wins as we can this year, with next week and whatever happens after that, but we’re ready to catapult into the next season as well.”
After starting a season 0-5 for the first time in program history, Penn State has won its last three games, with the latest victory coming after the Nittany Lions trailed Michigan State 21-10 at halftime, with the Spartans scoring three touchdowns in the second quarter to momentarily surge ahead.
Such a half could have had the players and coaches thinking “Here we go again,” but instead, Penn State seized control in the second half and won by two scores, setting up a scenario where the Nittany Lions can avoid a losing season by beating struggling Illinois and closing out the season with a potential bowl victory.
After the team’s first win of the season against Michigan, Clifford brushed off the notion that he ever doubted himself. Watching the Nittany Lions for the last three weeks gives a good indication why he kept the faith, not just in himself but in the team.
In an era when players out opt and transfer if they don’t receive first-team reps every week, both he and Levis have made the two-quarterback system as seamless as could be hoped for.
When Levis comes into the game, everybody on the opposing sidelines knows there’s about a 90 percent he’ll take the snap and run for the first down. It doesn’t matter, because they still can’t stop him. Levis also has shown off his arm, at times, giving the Nittany Lions plenty of options no matter who’s in the game.
Seeing two guys who would be the starter at nearly every school in the Big Ten share snaps and help one another be successful is a good barometer for how the Nittany Lions have banded together during a time when so many other programs are falling apart.
“I think it all just comes down to the love that we have for each other,” Levis said in describing the team’s fight and resiliency. “There was no doubt about it, that we weren’t going to give up on each other, on the season, and we were going to approach every day just like we always have been: that it’s the most important day of the week and that game is the only game you’re focused on. We just made sure that we approached every day with the correct attitude and stuck to the process that we know has worked so long for this program. It’s great to see the wins start coming in now and that’s pretty much what it comes down to, just the love and the trust that we have for each other.”
The win over Michigan State ensured that one of the most beautiful and prestigious trophies in college football — the Land-Grant Trophy — would remain in Happy Valley. OK, so maybe we took a little bit of literacy license with that description.
Still, winning any game, and retaining any trophy, in a season that was scripted for The Twilight Zone, will look pretty good from any angle.
“The resilience that we have shown, again, I’m proud of them,” Franklin said. “It’s not something that we’ve experienced or been through, so to find a way to show that type of heart, to show that type of belief and brotherhood and stick together and stay together and battle through, I’m very proud of them. I’ve very proud of everybody. Again, it’s not easy to do. The last three weeks, we have found ways to win, which is really what we’ve done for seven years.”
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