STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The overcast gloom for much of Saturday in Happy Valley was clearing up later in the day, but most fans of Penn State were in no mood to see the sun break through even after watching a historic college football game.
The Nittany Lions’ inept offense carried through four quarters and continued into a record nine overtimes where they had chance after chance after chance to win. But their 20-18 loss to lowly Illinois, a 23-point underdog, pretty much spelled the end to a Big Ten championship run and any thought of the College Football Playoff.
The Lions, ranked seventh going into the game, dropped 13 spots to No. 20 in the Associated Press top 25 released Sunday.
With No. 5 Ohio State coming up on Saturday, and two games against ranked teams on the schedule in the final three weeks of the regular season, the Lions (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) likely have put themselves too far behind the competition to play for one of the substantial prizes available to conference teams.
Only running the table in their remaining five games would help them get back into the discussion. But the sobering thing about Saturday’s game was that Penn State, after starting the season 5-0 with two victories over ranked teams, looked nothing like that team Saturday in suffering one of the worst losses of the James Franklin era, in the first nine-overtime game in NCAA college football history.
With Sean Clifford returning from injury, but clearly less than 100%, the execution by the offense was dreadful. The Nittany Lions went the entire second half without scoring and gained just 84 total yards after halftime.
Since Clifford had to leave the Iowa game, the Lions have scored just one touchdown in 23 possessions in regulation, a statistic that won’t serve them well against an Ohio State team that led the nation in scoring at 48.5 points per game entering Saturday night’s game against Indiana.
The Lions managed field goals by Jordan Stout in each of the first two overtimes but went only 1 of 7 on two-point conversions that begin with the third overtime. Clifford dropped a pass in the third OT on a play modeled after the Philly Special. Noah Cain was stopped a foot short of the goal line in the seventh.
Even the defense muffed its chance. With the Lions leading 13-10 in the first overtime, Jaquan Brisker dropped an interception that would have ended the game.
“Obviously, we didn’t get the job done,” Franklin said. “I think it was nine overtimes, or whatever it was. There was plenty of plays and plenty of opportunities for us to end it, and either we did not execute, or we did not make plays when we had opportunities to do and that’s on the offense and defense.”
In the decisive ninth OT, Clifford failed to connect with Parker Washington, and Illinois (3-5, 2-3) ended it when backup quarterback Brandon Peters hit Casey Washington for the game-winner.
Clifford was not himself. Usually fearless when scrambling or calling his own number on running plays, he avoided running at all costs. His five rushing attempts included four sacks and a voluntary kneel-down when a play broke down. He threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith in the first quarter, but his longest completion in the second half was 15 yards.
“Obviously we had to be smart,” Franklin said. “He was limited today. That’s why we tried to mix the run and the pass in there to take some of that off him. Obviously it’s a big part of his game that he didn’t have today.”
Clifford said he wasn’t limited. He was asked if he would limit his running in the coming weeks.
“I’ll keep getting better,” he said. “I’ll keep being able to push that a little more.”
Clifford got no help from the running game, which accounted for just 62 yards. The tailbacks rushed for 88 yards with Cain leading the way with 43 and scoring the only two-point conversion posted by Penn State in the overtimes.
Defensively, the Lions showed how much they missed defensive tackle PJ Mustipher. Using extra linemen on a number of plays, the Fighting Illini rushed for 357 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. Sophomore Chase Brown carried 33 times for 223 yards and 240-pound freshman Josh McCray added 142 yards on 24 carries.
Franklin said he and his staff “did not have our guys ready to play” and blamed himself for not getting the job done. He noted, however, that the effects of injuries from the Iowa game lingered into the week of practice.
“We just have way too many guys that played significant roles in that game that did not practice or did not practice full speed and full-go all week long,” he said. “Practices are obviously really important and we had way too many guys miss, and Sean was one of those guys.”
It doesn’t look like a good scenario for Penn State heading to Ohio State. The Lions cannot expect to limit the Ohio State offense too much below its lofty scoring average. Clifford may still be limited in terms of running with the football. It could be a long night in the horseshoe.