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Is PSU really improved, or did it just beat bad teams?

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Parker Washington

Let’s pump the brakes on praising the Penn State football team too much after its back-to-back wins. We have a tendency to do that in sports — to crush teams after they lose and to heap praise after they win — without fully taking everything into context.

For instance, I’ll contend that the best the Nittany Lions have looked this season came in a loss. In the opener at Indiana, PSU actually should have won that game, as I’ve stated repeatedly ever since.

If you look at what the Hoosiers have done since the opener, the only conclusion you can come away with is they are a really good football team that has a terrific coach in Tom Allen. By the way, check out his postgame videos. The guy is a phenomenal leader, and he should be the national coach of the year.

Because Indiana has turned out to be really good, and because Penn State really should have won that game, we should all look back on that day in Bloomington a little differently now. Yes, the Lions played a bad first half, and yes, Sean Clifford threw some bad interceptions, but PSU actually looked like a good football team for much of that day.

Can you say that Penn State looked like a good team Saturday against Rutgers?

Ehhh, that would be a stretch.

The defense played well and came up with two enormous stops on fourth-and-1 that led to a pair of touchdowns. But Rutgers, for all the strides it has made this season, did not play well at all in that game, and PSU won easily, 23-7, despite a choppy performance on offense on a very windy day.

The offensive and defensive lines played very well. They deserve credit, and we should give them credit.

Same goes with the game at Michigan nine days ago. The defense made some big stops in short-yardage situations, and the offense did enough.

The question I’m asking here is this: How much better we should feel about Penn State after these two wins?

Rutgers is Rutgers. That has been and never should be any measuring stick for how Penn State is playing, even in a season that started 0-5.

Michigan is a 30-point underdog this week at Ohio State. Let me repeat that: A 30-point underdog.


Michigan is awful, on both sides of the ball. And while a win at the Big House is always good — as James Franklin said, PSU hadn’t had one there since 2009 — this is not the year to be bragging too much about that.

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What we still don’t really know is if this Penn State team is any good. Yes, it has gotten better the past two weeks, limiting bad turnovers and getting defensive stops, but how much of it is merely window dressing?

OK, OK, enough of the Debbie Downer stuff.

The bottom line is it really doesn’t matter if this PSU team is any good or not.

The Lions now have a couple of wins, and they absolutely should be getting a third this week against a bad Michigan State team. Penn State is favored by two touchdowns over a Sparty team that has looked awful for most of the season, yet somehow managed to stun Northwestern two weeks ago.

Confidence is a big thing in sports, especially with young athletes. This Penn State team had its confidence destroyed through a series of bad breaks — from Micah Parsons, to Journey Brown, to Noah Cain, to the call at Indiana — and it just needed something to go right in order to save the ship from sinking.

Something finally went right at Michigan. It doesn’t matter that Michigan is terrible. Penn State won the game.

It doesn’t matter that Rutgers isn’t any good. Penn State won the game.

As I wrote last week, all of this could be a repeat of what happened at the end of the 2004 season, when PSU beat Indiana on a goal-line stand and then used that as a springboard for a great 2005 season.

However, jut just be careful thinking this year’s team has turned some kind of corner just yet.

You’re never as bad as you think when you lose, right? And it definitely rings true in this case that you’re never quite as good as you think when you win.

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Written By

Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.



  1. Mike Adams

    December 8, 2020 at 11:06 am

    They will not turn the corner until they get FBS level quarterback play. I am encourage that the o-line seems to be blocking better as they infuse it with youth. But they are sorely lacking a quarterback. Clifford can’t throw accurately and Levis is a tight end playing quarterback. If there is to be a turnaround next year, they might have to go portal shopping.

  2. Stephen Gaughan

    December 8, 2020 at 1:59 pm

    Look, Rutgers had been putting up point, and they didn’t against us. MeatChicken isn’t good, but still a win. We really should have beaten IN by 17 points – if we’d had a normal Spring season and better Fall practice, we’d have been in-sync earlier. It’s not like OSU beat us by 40, like they did MI St the other day.
    We have talent, but a ton of youth and inexperience – look at the LB crew – losing both Micah and Jan created a huge void. Next year will see a marked improvement.
    I do echo your QB qualms, I really thought Clifford would be better, as he always had better arm-strength than Trace. I think it’s just a combination of the inexperienced WR room last season… and they’re still just getting on track this season.
    I also think that Levis could be good… he has a great arm, but few 1st team reps.

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