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Penn State football finished big despite losing season

The Nittany Lions last had a losing season in 2004. But 2020 ended with four straight wins following an 0-5 start and left everyone feeling upbeat.

Penn State quarterback Will Levis (7) celebrates with Juice Scruggs (70) after scoring a touchdown against Illinois on Saturday.
Penn State quarterback Will Levis (7) celebrates with Juice Scruggs (70) after scoring a touchdown against Illinois on Saturday.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

In the strangest season college football had ever seen, Penn State did the impossible, becoming the first team in the 134-year history of the program to lose its first five games.

“It was hard,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “It was tough. I don’t think people on the outside know what it’s like to lose five games in a row. We were in foreign territory.

“Coach [James] Franklin told us, ‘It starts with you guys, there’s not going to be any magic.’ It starts with the people in this building. We have to stay together and execute our jobs at a high level. We stuck together. We improved every day. It started showing up on Saturdays. We’re back to who we are.”

The Nittany Lions won their last four, closing with Saturday night’s 56-21 rout of Illinois. After deciding to end the season rather than go to a bowl, they finished 4-5, their first losing record since going 4-7 in 2004, but the comeback was a testament to being resilient and sticking together, and staying safe in a pandemic.

“I think it’s just the character of the guys who Coach Franklin brings in,” quarterback Sean Clifford said.

“That was one thing that I addressed the team on, just talking about how the last thing I’m going to do in times of adversity and times where your team needs you the most is just turn your back and say, ‘We’ll catch them next year.’ That’s just not how I was raised. So it’s just taking every day with a grain of salt and trying to be 1-0 each day, find a way to improve and making sure that you’re holding your teammates accountable to the standard.”

It was a particularly challenging season for Clifford, who was eager to work with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca but had to learn from him off Zoom for the spring and early summer until the Big Ten green-lighted a football season on Sept. 16.

Clifford committed 10 turnovers in his first five games and had three of them – two fumbles and an interception – returned for touchdowns. He was lifted in favor of Will Levis in the fourth game against Nebraska, then came off the bench the following week at home vs. Iowa.

Clifford returned to the starting lineup in Week 6 and went 4-0, turning the ball over only twice. He had ample backup from Levis, who had a package of mostly running plays.

Jahan Dotson, who took over from KJ Hamler as the team’s primary wide receiver, enjoyed a breakout season. He caught 52 passes for 884 yards and eight touchdowns, including scores of 75 and 70 yards against Illinois. He also excelled returning punts, averaging 24.6 yards per return.

“We ended [the season] the way we needed to end it, but losing five games in a row is not our standard,” he said. “We’re a winning program. We know how to win. We’ve just got to do that. We’re excited about the last four games.”

Defensively, the Nittany Lions actually allowed fewer yards (328.8 per game) than in 2019 (346.5) but gave up almost 12 more points on average, to 27.7 per game. The unit only forced 10 takeaways in nine games but proved to be stronger in the second half of games, allowing just 75 points compared to 166 in the first.

The Nittany Lions had some bad luck with injuries throughout the season. Journey Brown, the team’s top rusher in 2019, had to retire because of a heart condition without playing a snap. His successor, Noah Cain, suffered a season-ending injury on the first possession of the season against Indiana.

Tight end Pat Freiermuth suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2 against Ohio State and played his last game in Week 4. He declared Sunday for the NFL draft.

Freiermuth was one of six players who started at least one game during the season to miss the Illinois matchup – cornerbacks Joey Porter Jr. and Tariq Castro-Fields, defensive end Jayson Oweh, running back Devyn Ford and guard C.J. Thorpe.

Oweh is expected to give up his final two seasons of eligibility to declare for the NFL draft. Dotson, a junior, had the type of seasons where NFL scouts could give him a look.

The NCAA Division I board of directors announced in August that all players who participated this season will receive an additional year of eligibility. Penn State has seven senior starters – defensive end Shaka Toney, defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, safeties Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker, center Michal Menet and guard-tackle Will Fries – who could return next year if they desire.

Five of the seniors are scheduled to participate in postseason all-star games next month. Toney, Menet, Brisker and Castro-Fields are scheduled to go to the Senior Bowl, and Wade is headed to the East-West Shrine Game.\