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Smeltzer: For Penn State, There’s Beauty in an Ugly Win

Photo by Penn State Athletics: James Franklin

Coach James Franklin used the word “beautiful” to describe Penn State football’s 30-13 win at Illinois Saturday.

Not many fans would agree with him.

The “a win is a win” cliche applies to this game.

Penn State had some problems. It only scored 13 points off of three first-quarter turnovers, and thus, Illinois was still in the game at the half, down just 16-7. There were physical errors (Malik McClain dropping two passes) and mental errors (KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Dvon Ellies taking unsportsmanlike conduct penalties). QB Drew Allar had the worst start of his college career, throwing more incompletions (17) than he did in his first pair of outings combined (12).

Penn State hasn’t had a “statement win” yet in 2023, and the team probably didn’t silence any skeptics in Champaign.

But not every win can be smooth, and for Penn State to get to the “elite” level that Franklin craves, it must win games like Saturday’s.

As Franklin pointed out yesterday and has pointed out before, winning in college football is difficult.

No. 3 Florida State proved that yesterday when it only beat Boston College by two points, despite BC losing the penalty battle 18-5. Hours later, Team Saban further proved it by beating South Florida 17-3 in a game that wasn’t sealed until late. Saban’a expression walking through the tunnel post game sums it up.

Even two-time defending national champion and top-ranked Georgia struggled against South Carolina, winning by just 10, which was 16.5 points lower than the spread.

No. 11 Tennessee wasn’t lucky enough to escape with a win. In fact, it got embarrassed, losing 29-16 at Florida in a game that wasn’t that close.

A lot of nonsense takes place in college football every week. Highly-ranked teams get upset or look sloppy winning. Over the past year, Penn State’s avoided the former and hasn’t had too much of the latter.

My friend and colleague Tyler Donahue of Lions247 put things into perspective hours after Saturday’s game.

Penn State hasn’t lost a game since last Oct. 29 against Ohio State. In that span, the closest margin of victory has been 14, and Penn State’s scored at least 30 points in every game and only allowed more than 16 once.

To add to Tyler’s point, Penn State’s won games by margins such as 31, 30, 45, 23 and 56 points. The offense has had games of 45, 55, 35, 38 and 63 points. So Penn State hasn’t played in really any close games in almost 11 months, and with all the problems Penn State had at Illinois, Saturday’s game didn’t end up being close.

Penn State’s 14-2 since the start of last season and has won every game it was supposed to win— with 13 being by double-digits. This isn’t a new trend for the program. Over the bulk of his near-10 season run at Penn State, Franklin’s team have largely took care of the teams they were supposed to beat, which has led in part to one of his biggest criticisms— failure to beat Michigan and Ohio State.

You’re probably sick of seeing the numbers right now, but they’re needed again here. Franklin’s 1-8 against Ohio State and not much better (3-6) against Michigan. This lack of head-to-head success is a big reason Ohio State’s been to the College Football Playoff five times since 2014, Michigan’s been there twice and Penn State a big, fat goose egg.

Under Franklin, Penn State’s become a consistent top 10-caliber program, and a lot of that can be attributed to beating who they’re supposed to beat and with few exceptions (9 overtimes, anyone?), avoiding the nonsense upsets that help make college football so damn compelling. But at the same time, winning those games has magnifies the losses to “The Team up North” (Michigan) and the team that hates “The Team up North.” Thus, Franklin’s taken a lot of heat from PSU fans and national media about not being able to “get over the hump.”

Penn State won’t change that narrative if it shows up in Columbus Oct. 21 and plays how it did against Illinois, and it will disappoint 107,000 fans if it puts up that type of performance against Michigan in Beaver Stadium three weeks winning.

But the beauty of that Illinois win is that Penn State has a chance to clean up its problems without having its season wrecked. Penn State will be favored in all three of its games (Iowa, at Northwestern, UMass) leading up to Ohio State week, and the only opponent that has a chance to cause trouble is Iowa.

Penn State played its C-game Saturday and still built a 30-7 lead on the road against a Big Ten opponent. Franklin sees the beauty in that, and so do I. What should excite Penn State fans is the team has a while before it needs it’s A-game.

I expect everything to come together, and its going to be beautiful when it does.

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