Five takeaways from Penn State's 2021 football regular season

CRAIG MEYER
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin during their NCAA football practice, Saturday, April 17, 2021, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Penn State's 30-27 loss last Saturday at Michigan State not only sent the Nittany Lions to their fifth defeat in their past seven games, but it was a conclusion.

A bowl game at a yet-to-be-determined destination awaits, but at 7-5, Penn State's 2021 season is effectively over.

It was an uneven campaign for the Nittany Lions, filled with reassuring highs and disheartening lows. After starting 5-0 and climbing as high as No. 4 in the Associated Press poll, they stumbled at the most important juncture of the season and finished with a losing record in Big Ten play for the second consecutive year.

For all that happened over the past three months, what was learned about Penn State? And what can be taken away from its 2021 season?

They were better than their record: The adage in football is that a team is what its record says it is. While ultimately true, it's an overly simplistic philosophy that can ignore critical distinctions that aren't reflected in a pair of numbers.

Four of the Nittany Lions' five losses came by a combined 12 points, two of which sting that much more. In a road loss against Iowa on Oct. 9, they were rolling, leading by two touchdowns in the second quarter, when quarterback Sean Clifford left the game with an injury. Two weeks later, with that same injury visibly affecting and limiting him, his team was stunned by Illinois, 20-18, in nine overtimes. With a healthy Clifford, those are two games Penn State almost certainly wins, turning a 7-5 squad into a 9-3 one and drastically altering the perception of its season. It's an explanation, not an excuse.

There's a larger conversation around the Nittany Lions' failures in close games and what that means. Losing by a combined 16 points to three top-15 teams should provide some solace, but only so much. This is a program, after all, that has justifiably high expectations and undeniable advantages fueling those desires. But players were adamant after the Michigan State loss that, yes, they were better than their record said they were. It's hard to say they were wrong.

They're committed to James Franklin in a big way: For months, there was some question about whether Franklin would still be Penn State's coach in early December, particularly given what has been an usually chaotic coaching carousel in which big-name coaches and proven winners have left historic powers for bigger paychecks elsewhere.

On Nov. 23, university leadership showed just how committed it is to its eighth-year head coach — and that's putting it mildly. It wasn't just that Penn State agreed to a new 10-year contract with Franklin through 2031, ending speculation that he could leave for vacancies at USC or LSU. It's what some of the details of the deal signify. If the Nittany Lions are struggling by the end of the third year of the deal, for instance, and the school wanted to fire Franklin, it would owe him $56 million. If Franklin were to opt to leave at that same time, he would owe just $2 million. It's a remarkably imbalanced deal in the coach's favor, showing that not only does he have a gifted agent, but that his employer believes in him, his long-term vision for the program and that the past two seasons, in which Penn State has gone just 11-10, are more an aberration than a harbinger.

The run game was non-existent to a problematic degree: A program whose identity has historically been built around a strong, productive run game was virtually unrecognizable this season. The Nittany Lions didn't have a single regular season game in which a running back topped 90 yards on the ground. Even that figure, startling as it might be, only delves so deeply into the problem. Among the team's three leading rushers this season, only Keyvone Lee had a yards-per-carry average higher than 3.4. As a trio, Lee, Noah Cain and John Lovett combined to average only 3.9 yards per attempt. Penn State's yards-per-rush average of 3.16 was the 10th-lowest of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

Lee's output (495 yards, 4.8 yards per carry) makes him an enticing piece moving forward and improvements to the offensive line could certainly help the backs in a way that unit didn't in 2021, but for a team that didn't pass a disproportionate amount — 451 attempts to 409 rushes — there need to be more reliable and consistent options in the backfield. Football has evolved and a run-heavy approach for which some might be nostalgic isn't feasible in 2021 at a program that competes for top recruits. But for Mike Yurcich's offense to hum, it can't afford to be so one-dimensional.

Jahan Dotson established himself as an all-time program great: With such a languishing run game, Penn State's offense would have been bogged down much more than it already was were it not for Dotson. The senior wide receiver almost single-handedly carried the Nittany Lions at times during the season, using his speed and sure hands to put together one of the most decorated seasons for a receiver in program history.

His 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns are the second-best single-season marks ever at Penn State. His 242 receiving yards in a Nov. 6 win against Maryland were a program single-game record. Of Penn State's 13 touchdowns in its final four games, he was responsible for six of them. He's second in career 100-yard games, tied for second in career touchdowns and fourth in career yards. If he gets 86 yards in the bowl game, he'll move into second place.

A projected first-round NFL draft pick by some outlets, Dotson has already noted that he played his last game ever at Beaver Stadium. Though he'll be gone after this season, he leaves behind one of the most impressive legacies ever for a wide receiver at the school.

There's justification for hope and skepticism moving forward: For as much disappointment as 2021 produced for Penn State, there are ample reasons to believe that the program can get back to where it was in Franklin's best years at the school. The Nittany Lions have the No. 5 recruiting class nationally in 2022, according to Rivals.com, ahead of even the talent-acquisition behemoth that is Ohio State. With top-15 classes in 2019 and 2020, there is no shortage of talent in Happy Valley, even if some of those prospects haven't developed in the way many expected them to quite yet. Despite the underwhelming record, they finished the regular season 14th in ESPN's Football Power Index rankings. With the arrival next season of Drew Allar, the No. 11 quarterback in the 2022 class, and the promise shown in spot duty this season by freshman Christian Veilleux, the Nittany Lions should be fine at quarterback in the years to come.

Still, challenges remain. This offseason, Penn State will be tasked with replacing Brent Pry, the newly minted Virginia Tech head coach who was Franklin's defensive coordinator since his first season as a head coach in 2011. The Big Ten East, already one of the hardest divisions in college football, isn't going to be getting any easier. Ohio State remains one of the sport's titans and has young stars at several key positions. Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh have rebounded resoundingly this season, with an 11-1 record and an inside path to a College Football Playoff appearance. With 10 wins this season, Michigan State has re-established itself as a contender in the conference and recently gave coach Mel Tucker a 10-year contract extension.

The road ahead could lead to a hopeful destination for Penn State, but it won't be reached without getting past some sizable obstacles.