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Smeltzer: Penn State Avoided a Nightmare, and That’s a Good Sign

Saturday could have been a nightmare for Penn State and its fans.

The team didn’t play well in its 17-7 win over lowly Northwestern.

Beating an operation that lost to Southern Illinois and Miami of Ohio at home in back-to-back weeks by just 10 points and not scoring a second-half touchdown is unacceptable for a program with Big Ten title aspirations, and there’s a lot Penn State needs to work on between now and it’s mid-October showdown with Michigan in “The Big House.”

But would the 2021 Penn State team have lost this game and thus had to live a nightmare?

There’s evidence that suggests it would have.

Last year’s Penn State team lost to an awful Illinois squad at home after coming into the game 5-1 and ranked No. 7.

That’s a nightmare.

This year’s team faced an awful Northwestern squad at home and came into the game 4-0 and ranked No. 11.

Penn State’s quarterback, Sean Clifford, played hurt against Illinois and didn’t produce, going 19-34 for 165 yards and a QBR of 21.8.

Clifford is still at Penn State (insert joke here) and played poorly against Northwestern, completing 10 of 20 passes with a touchdown and a brutal interception.

Against Illinois, Penn State got off to a 10-0 lead, but never put its foot on Illinois’ throat and ended up getting burnt to a crisp because of it.

Penn State led Northwestern 14-0 at halftime, but led only 14-7 going into the fourth quarter.

For the 2021 team, the Illinois game was a season-killer. Penn State wasn’t far from a college football playoff spot rankings-wise coming in, and after the game, those dreams died.

After Illinois, Penn State lost four of its last six games and finished 7-6.

A loss to Northwestern Saturday would have been similarly devastating.

But it didn’t happen, largely because Penn State did something it couldn’t do against Illinois.

It ran the ball.

I know. Penn State fumbled four times, and Penn State’s freshmen studs, Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen were responsible for three of them.

The freshmen studs also combined for 173 yards on 42 carries, and Allen rushed for 86 on 21 without even playing in the first half (for reasons not revealed by coach James Franklin).

Against Illinois, Penn State ran the ball 29 times for 62 yards and averaged 2.1 yards per carry.

You think that might have been a reason it suffered that embarrassing loss?

You think 2022’s version of that Penn State nightmare could have happened if it posted rushing numbers like that against Northwestern?

I think the answer to both questions is an obvious yes.

Whether you’re a Clifford defender or detractor— and the 24-year-old has plenty of both— I think you’ll probably agree that Clifford isn’t a quarterback that’s going to be on every week.

Clifford can thrive with the right pieces around him. He’s not a guy that will make mediocre talent look great.

So when Clifford plays poorly, Penn State better make up for it by running the ball.

He played poorly against Illinois, and the run-game was just as bad.

He played poorly against Northwestern, and the run game made up for it.

When Clifford was a young quarterback— yes, that was a thing in 2019— Penn State’s ‘LawnBoyz’ running quartet of Journey Brown, Noah Cain, the recently-departed Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade paced the offense.

Clifford played solid that season, and solid was good enough to get Penn State to an 11-2 record and Cotton Bowl win.

Northwestern aside, Clifford has been solid this season, and solid has been good enough for Penn State to start 5-0 and hover around the top 10.

Penn State was 5-0 and in the top four last year.

Then, it had a big game at Iowa. Clifford got knocked out of the game, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher suffered a season-ending injury, Penn State lost and ended up barely finishing above .500.

This year, Penn State is again 5-0 and has a big game at Michigan, so it will be understandable for Penn State fans to have a feeling of Deja Vu.

But I think this season will have a better ending, and a big reason is because Penn State has a running game again.

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