Penn State’s 28-0 win against Rutgers perhaps might have been its most impressive this season.
Sure, the defense held the Scarlet Knights to just 165 yards and 10 first downs, and wide receiver Jahan Dotson cracked the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the season, but not even those impressive feats emerged as the day’s biggest storyline.
Earlier in the week, Penn State coach James Franklin suggested that his team was short-handed in its practice preparations for Rutgers.
Offensive tackles Caedan Wallace and Rasheed Walker weren’t visible during the 15-minute viewing portion of practice last Wednesday, prompting the question for Franklin.
Saturday showed just how dire things were this week for the Nittany Lions.
The first sign that the situation was bleak was when quarterback Sean Clifford didn’t participate in pregame warmups. He finally emerged for Senior Day festivities and ran out with the team ahead of kickoff.
Clifford only lasted a quarter, though, and Franklin later shared he was among 35 Penn State players afflicted by the flu. Franklin pulled his third-year starter in the second quarter in favor of freshman Christian Veilleux, who also battled the flu late into last week.
On Friday, walk-on quarterback Mason Stahl was the only signal-caller available to practice.
“I’m telling you guys, between throw up and IVs, it was an interesting week,” Franklin said after the game. “Literally, I’ve never been through something like this, especially at this point in the season when you’re already banged up.”
The Nittany Lions were without 21 players on Saturday, including starters in Wallace and Walker, and starting linebacker Curtis Jacobs.
For the players who were fortunate enough to remain illness-free, navigating the program the last week was an exercise in caution.
“I’ve never been around something like that,” Nittany Lions defensive end Arnold Ebiketie said. “I remember Thursday walking into the training room and I was surprised. I was like, ‘Dang. This looks like a hospital.’ There were IVs hooked up everywhere. … I’m glad we were able to get some of those guys back.”
According to Franklin, the illness hit the team in waves. The first one came through early in the week, and the second one waited until Friday morning to touch down.
Penn State defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo said players warmed up with the team on Saturday in pregame, but later decided they couldn’t play. From the sound of it, nearly everyone’s availability was unknown until the exact moment of kickoff.
Even when playing home games, Penn State players and the coaching staff stay at an area hotel. It allows players to interact with each other the Friday night before a game, and the mood at the hotel is light-hearted as a way to get everyone loose before game day.
That wasn’t the case on Friday.
“I didn’t see a lot of the guys (Friday),” Tangelo said. “It was more so like a go-to-my-room type of night.”
That the Nittany Lions were able to navigate such a wacky week and close out their home slate this season with a shutout win should be noted as the team’s most impressive feat in 2021.