Opinion: James Franklin era hits a low point as Penn State loses in 9 overtimes to Illinois

Frank Bodani
York Daily Record

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — This may be Penn State's worst defeat since James Franklin took over in 2014.

So a report card will be rough. How can it not be?

Saturday's 20-18 defeat to Illinois in Beaver Stadium, during a dreary, raw homecoming day, will be talked about for years to come for all the wrong reasons.

File this next to the unimaginable 6-4 loss to Iowa in 2004. This, actually, may be even more incomprehensible.

That, at least, came during a losing, lost season. This performance against a three-touchdown underdog helps to derail a Top 10 team.

Even with their star quarterback making an uplifting return from injury.

Somehow losing in an NCAA-record nine overtime periods — which only underlines the incredible futility.

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Remember how this team was gunning for a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff bid a couple of weeks ago? A handful of injuries has seemingly sent their possibilities into a tailspin.

Where it can possibly go from here — with a trip to all-powerful Ohio State on deck — is anyone's guess.

Here are the grades after one of the ugliest defeats in recent memory:

Offense: F

It makes you wonder if Sean Clifford should have played at all.

Nursing his undisclosed injury (bruised ribs?), Penn State's impressive QB was not only inaccurate much of the day, he appeared to be unable or unwilling to run.

And running, or the threat thereof, is a big part of his success.

He actually started pretty well, completing three straight throws to give the Nittany Lions an early 7-0 lead. It was a stunning struggle after that.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford reacts to a play during the second half against Illinois at Beaver Stadium.

It got so bad that the Lions attempted a trick play in one of these many OTs with tight end Tyler Warren tossing to Clifford off a pitch. Clifford could have walked into the end zone untouched to win. But the ball fell harmlessly off his fingertips as he stumbled to the ground.

He threw for just 165 yards in regulation and nine extra periods. 

Even worse, Penn State's struggling run game hit an all-time low. It managed only 62 yards on 29 attempts, counting sacks.

They were outgained 357-62 on the ground.

Defense: D+

The Lions knew Illinois was going to run the ball.

They knew the Illini's Artur Sitkowksi was a liability even trying to pass.

And yet they still could not get off the field when needed to save the day.

This group always looks good in the effort category. Their secondary is active and locks down on weak passing opponents like this.

But they are banged up and missed star defensive tackle PJ Mustipher more than they ever should. Giving up 357 yards on the ground is unforgivable and embarrassing, to a point.

Illinois entered the weekend with the second-worst offense in the Big Ten and one of the softest in the entire FBS (318 total yards per game). 

But they had two tailbacks crush the Lions for more than 100 yards on the ground (Chase Brown, 223; Josh McCray, 142).

Special Teams: B-

Jordan Stout is automatic on kickoffs and continued his run as one of the top punters in the nation.

Though he averaged "only" 47 yards per punt on this day, he placed seven of eight tries inside the 20 yard line. He pinned Illinois repeatedly. He did his job.

The only issue came on field goals. While he did hit two clutch tries in overtime, he missed a 40-yarder in the third quarter.

That is well within his range. And it loomed large by the end of the day.

Coaching: F

Franklin didn't have much to say in the postgame interview session, but his most telling response came at the end: He offered how his staff simply did not have this team ready to play after a tough loss and a bye week.

Inexcusable, injuries or not.

Penn State head coach James Franklin reacts to a call during the second half of the game against Illinois at Beaver Stadium.

The Lions should have been able to beat Illinois with the backup quarterback of their choice. Instead, they gambled with their limited star QB and it turned out even worse.

The decision to go with Clifford, who wasn't anywhere close to 100%, was curious. Are backups Ta'Quan Roberson and Christian Veilleux really worse than Clifford's 19-of-34 passing for 165 yards and no threat to run — against arguably the worst team in the Big Ten?

That's difficult to believe.

Overall: F

Team leader Jaquan Brisker kind of sums up the day, all of the missed opportunities and misfortune.

The star safety had a couple of chances to win this game, looking back. His early fumble recovery for a touchdown was wiped away after an official inexplicably blew the play dead with a quick whistle.

That cost seven points.

And in overtime, he had a chance to end the day when he jumped a pass route but couldn't hold onto the interception. It's a play, he admitted later, that he should have made.

For how tough these defenders have played this season, it was at least the seventh interception they have dropped.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.