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Why is 2023 so important for Penn State football?

Penn State football had a great year in 2022; it’s now time to capitalize on that momentum and make 2023 an even bigger success.



Jan 2, 2023; Pasadena, California, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith (1) runs for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Utah Utes in the 109th Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The contrast between the 2021-22 offseason and the 2022-23 offseason for Penn State football is astounding. The last time the earth was this far around the sun, Penn State fans were demoralized after their Nittany Lions’ 5-0 start quickly turned into a 7-6 finish.

If that was not enough, Penn State then put more players in the NFL than any other program — which is by no means a bad thing; however, it showed how much talent was wasted in the previous two seasons.

The offseason that followed 2021

It was not a good time to be a Penn State fan if we’re being honest. All the media talked about was how awful Penn State would be in 2022; frankly, most Penn State fans felt the same. The Nittany Lions still had 6th-year QB Sean Clifford under center; there were too many questions at critical spots, such as offensive line, linebackers, running backs, and more.

Worst of all, Penn State’s offense — on paper at least — had worsened from the previous year. The Washington Commanders drafted Jahan Dotson — the Nittany Lions’ star wideout and focal point of the 2020 and 2021 offenses. Somehow, Penn State’s 90th overall offense from 2021 was looking even worse, and much of its elite defense had also left.

I don’t mean to pile on, but I am going to anyways. Penn State football was also bringing in a new defensive coordinator — Manny Diaz from Miami (FL) — to replace long-time DC Brent Pry. Most thought 8-9 wins was generous; many picked Penn State to finish 7-5 again and no higher than 4th in the Big Ten East division.

After Penn State’s spring game, not many were convinced that Penn State football was going to be much better — there were a lot of mistakes, bad throws, etc., and it gave little hope that Penn State would be ready come September 1st when the Nittany Lions were set to face off against Purdue.

The worst part about the schedule heading into the year was that Penn State needed more time to prepare its young team; Penn State football was slated to face off against Purdue (Big Ten West Champions) and Auburn within the first three weeks of the season. Additionally, the Nittany Lions had to face Michigan (Big Ten Champions) for their 6th game of the year and Ohio State for their 8th.

It felt doable to some; however, the 2020 and 2021 seasons gave Penn State football fans little hope for the season. Another 8-win season (at best) and a bowl game loss felt expected in year nine of James Franklin.

These feelings were all flooding in less than a year ago; the contrast between then and now is astounding.

Penn State football changes its fortunes

Week 1 of the 2022 season came and went, and while Penn State did not play its best game, the Nittany Lions managed to start on the right foot. Penn State football went into Ross-Ade Stadium and beat Purdue with a last-minute game-winning drive assembled by none other than Sean Clifford.

While the Nittany Lions’ 35-31 win at Purdue was not enough to get Penn State ranked by any means, it still established that the 2022 Penn State football team was not of the same breed as the last two teams.

In Week 2, Penn State again flexed its muscle with a 46-10 win over the Ohio Bobcats — a win that seems a far bigger deal in hindsight. Ohio went on to win the MAC East division with a 9-3 record; it was not a ranked-caliber win, but it was a solid win to add.

Week 3 was the real turning point for the Nittany Lions as they faced their biggest test to that point: on the road at Auburn. The year before, Penn State football defeated Auburn by eight points in the infamous White Out game; however, in 2022, Penn State needed to make the trip to Alabama.

No Big Ten team had ever played in Jordan-Hare Stadium — a graveyard for SEC programs like Alabama, Georgia, and more — however, Penn State had little trouble. At halftime, the score read 14-6, yet Penn State returned to State College with an astounding 41-12 victory all said and done.

It was a turning point for how people viewed Penn State football; gone were the days of the “same old Nittany Lions,” and in was a revamped Penn State team.

While PSU saw its ups and downs in 2022, one thing was for sure: Penn State got back on track. Sure, the 44-31 home loss to Ohio State was no fun, nor was Penn State’s 41-17 loss at Michigan. That being said, those were the Nittany Lions’ only two losses, and both came against College Football Playoff teams.

Fans also witnessed some massive Penn State wins; a 35-16 win over Michigan State, a 45-17 win in the White Out, a 45-14 win at Indiana, a 30-0 shutout of Maryland, and more. Penn State’s 10-2 record was good enough to earn a bid to the 2023 Rose Bowl game — Penn State’s second Rose Bowl berth and fifth New Year’s Six game since 2016.

Unlike the 2016 team, Penn State dominated this year’s Rose Bowl and ran No. 8 Utah (PAC-12 Champions) out of the stadium. All said and done, Penn State football walked off with a 35-21 victory and its second-ever Rose Bowl win (first since 1995).

2023 is a crucial turning point for Penn State football

As the page turns from Penn State’s incredible 11-2 Rose Bowl-winning season, the Nittany Lions are facing their biggest test of the James Franklin era: get to the next level.

Many times since 2016 has, Penn State been in this situation. In 2016, coming off the heels of a Big Ten Championship, Penn State was in this spot; the same can be said for Penn State’s 2018 and 2020 offseasons.

Yet so far, Penn State football has yet to capture this momentum and take that next step. Its only win over Ohio State and conference title came in 2016; the same can be said for the closest it has come to making the College Football Playoff. I hate to be a broken record — I genuinely do — but Penn State needs to take advantage of this momentum.

After 2016’s 11-3 finish, Penn State had one of the best rosters in program history yet again fell short of its preseason goals. I am not saying an 11-2, top-10 finish with a Fiesta Bowl win is anything to complain about; however, more was expected of that team.

The same can be said for Penn State’s 9-4 season in 2018, its 11-2 season in 2019, and both the 2020 and 2021 teams.

The Nittany Lions have had their ups and downs, but Penn State needs to take the leap at some point. In 2021, Michigan went from being a 10-win team to a 12-win squad — the Wolverines have now made back-to-back trips to the College Football Playoff, won two-straight Big Ten Championships, and continue to dominate Ohio State on the field.

It’s Penn State’s turn to take that leap — the talent is there, now it’s time to deliver.

The Nittany Lions have the tools in 2023

No more excuses in 2023 for Penn State not to be in contention for the Big Ten Championship. The defense should be elite-caliber, just as in 2021 and 2022; the offense is loaded with talent out wide, in the trenches, and in the backfield, not to mention Penn State retains its same coaching staff.

Under center, a former No. 1 overall prospect — Drew Allar — will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps. Behind Allar is an elite duo of rising sophomore running backs: Kaytron Allen, Nick Singleton, and more.

It’s time to put up or shut up; can Penn State hold onto this momentum and take the same leap that Michigan did in 2021? If Penn State expects to become an elite program like Michigan and Ohio State, it must capitalize on this offseason momentum and change its fortunes even further in 2023. If not, we could be in a similar cycle as we faced in 2016-2021.


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