Pennsylvania State University, University Park — With time running out, Penn State’s James Franklin took off his headset and walked to midfield to shake hands with Ohio State’s Ryan Day, who was accompanied by two police officers.
Franklin walked slowly toward the student section, where he was greeted with a bear hug by Penn State’s athletic director Pat Kraft before he joined his players for the alma mater performed by the marching Blue Band.
As soon as the music stopped, Franklin hurried back to the sidelines to give a final fist bump to the recruiting class before leaving for the Nittany Lions’ locker room.
It was a frustratingly familiar scene at Penn State, a school with a long and storied football history that still hasn’t gotten back to being one of the best in the country more than a decade after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
The 13th-ranked Nittany Lions lost 44-31 to second-ranked Ohio State on Saturday, proving once again that they are not bad but not good enough to beat the two Big Ten giants that have trounced them recently: Michigan (who beat them handily two weeks ago) and Ohio State.
The Nittany Lions (6-2, 3-2) were inspired by the 108,433 blue and white fans in attendance at Beaver Stadium on a crisp, sunny afternoon, but the home team collapsed as it often does against the Buckeyes (8-0, 5-0). In Franklin’s nine years as head coach, this is the fourth time his team has rallied to beat Penn State in the fourth quarter or overtime.
Penn State has now lost 11 straight games against teams ranked in the top 10, beginning with the 2016 Big Ten Championship Game victory over Wisconsin.
Sixth-year senior quarterback Sean Clifford said, “This one’s a heartbreaker, just because we had our shots,” after learning that he would graduate with only one victory over his two biggest rivals (the other being a 2019 win over Michigan). “We deserved to win that game,” I said.
No Buckeye player was more disruptive than sophomore defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau, who recorded two sacks, a forced fumble, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), and a deflection that was picked off by his teammate Zach Harrison.
However, with 9 minutes and 26 seconds left in the game, Penn State took the lead for good when freshman running back Kaytron Allen squirmed over the goal line after breaking through the arms of Ohio State middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg behind the line.
We had them exactly where we wanted them to be,” said junior cornerback and son of former Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Joey Porter Jr.
The game was decided by Allen’s run on fourth down from the 1-yard line, which capped a 13-play drive. It was only because of two penalties committed by Ohio State that the drive was not ended: a pass interference call on third down and an illegal formation on a missed field goal. One fourth-down was converted by Penn State, another touchdown was scored thanks to a spectacular catch by receiver Parker Washington, and a touchdown was overturned because tight end Brenton Strange recovered a fumble by teammate Mitchell Tinsley right before the goal line, according to a replay review. On the ensuing play, Allen punched it in.
Ohio State’s offense, which had been stagnant for most of the afternoon, suddenly woke up despite the raucous support of the home crowd. C.J. Stroud threw a touchdown pass of 21 yards to wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr., then completed a pass of 13 yards to tight end Emeka Egbuka, and finally sprinted 41 yards for a score on a lateral from TreVeyon Henderson.
Bang, bang, boom.
It “just got ugly really quick,” Porter Jr. said.
Tuimoloau sacked Clifford on Penn State’s second play, and then he recovered the fumble at the 24-yard line. Continuing the drive, Stroud completed a pass to tight end Cade Stover over the middle on the next play, and Stover sprinted past three defenders en route to the end zone and a 30-21 lead.
The final nail in the coffin was driven home by Tuimoloau’s interception of his second pass, which he returned 14 yards for a touchdown. He hadn’t intercepted a pass since he was a sophomore in high school, and he couldn’t even remember what happened. “I just blacked out,” he said.
After scoring a touchdown, Clifford walked back to the sidelines and passed Franklin without a word. Like most coaching and quarterback duos, they are equally responsible for the team’s successes and failures.
The 24-year-old Clifford hasn’t changed much since he took over as the starting quarterback in 2019; he’s still a tough competitor who hasn’t been able to carry his team past the league’s elite with his arm or his decisions. Even though Clifford set a Penn State record for touchdown passes by a quarterback, he also threw four interceptions that day.
While taking the field for the final play, Clifford said, “The key stat, obviously, is wins and loss.” He was met with boos. It’s tough to evaluate my performance on an individual basis. Everything I know for sure is that we failed to finish what we started.
However, Franklin has not met anyone he likes more. No matter what he did, Will Levis just couldn’t beat out Clifford, so the latter is now the starting coach at Kentucky. Last year, Christian Veilleux couldn’t dethrone Clifford, and even though Drew Allar is a highly touted freshman, he hasn’t proven himself yet to be capable of doing so.
After this season, Clifford will be leaving, but Franklin will be staying put.
Despite several subpar seasons and repeated losses to Penn State’s rivals, Sandy Barbour, who retired as athletic director last summer, gave Franklin a new 10-year contract worth $75 million plus incentives in November as a parting gift.
Franklin avoided looking at the questioner as he attempted to explain the magnitude of the gap between Penn State and rivals Ohio State and Michigan.
He even bragged about the quality of their football teams. You can’t afford to make careless plays against a top-ranked opponent like Ohio State, and we did.
Though it’s impossible to say whether or not Franklin will be able to heal the rift between the squads, his contract guarantees that he’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so.