17 Thoughts on Penn State's 17-7 win over Northwestern
Good morning Nittany Nation readers, it's time for our weekly Sunday piece, looking back at Penn State's most recent game. Over the first four weeks, I was able to cover quite a bit about Penn State in these pieces thanks to Penn State scoring 33+ points in each of their first four games. But this week, I'll be limited to just 17 thoughts to match Penn State's 17 points on offense.
I have to make good use of each thought so let's get right into it...
1. Let's make it straightforward. If Penn State is going to win any of their next three games, Sean Clifford simply has to play better. His first three games of the season were pretty strong all things considered outside his pick-six against Purdue. That being said, over the last two games, the sixth-year quarterback has regressed.
In the first three weeks of the season, Clifford was 70-for-106 (66%) for 878 yards and seven touchdowns to just one interception. Outside his interception against Purdue, the Cincinnati (OH) native threw very few turnover-worthy passes. However, against Central Michigan and Northwestern, that accuracy has dropped off to 57%. It's not him being a victim of drops or poor wide receiver play either. Poor footwork has caused Clifford to miss several big plays due to inaccuracies whether it was too far in front, behind, or overthrown.
It's quite simple if Penn State is going to win their trio of games following the bye week, Clifford has to get better. His footwork and form must be consistent as the Nittany Lions won't be able to afford to have any missed opportunities against Michigan, Minnesota, or Ohio State.
2. The running backs outside their four fumbles were pretty good. That's the positive takeaway from the rushing attack, 58 carries for 220 yards and one touchdown. All their running backs averaged over 4.0 yards per game while Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton totaled 42 carries for 173 yards. Penn State has now rushed for 200+ yards in three of their five games this season. Going forward, Kaytron Allen is well deserving of being Penn State's starting running back.
That being said, the ball security drills over the next two weeks are going to be brutal for the running backs. Four turnovers simply won't cut it once going forward.
3. I thought the offensive line all things considered had a really nice game. Penn State's playcalling because of the circumstances was highly predictable and the Nittany Lions offensive line was able to get consistent push throughout most of the day. The pass protection was solid as well, Clifford was not sacked in the game and only allowed a handful of pressures on his 20 attempts.
4. I really liked the play design on Brenton Strange's touchdown in the first quarter. That being said, failing to get him involved afterward is a headscratcher. Penn looked to go downfield quite a bit on Saturday and Strange never was looked at after the touchdown. In a game that was sloppy and one that Clifford was struggling to throw in when throwing more than 10 yards down the field, being able to check down to Strange could've been quite beneficial.
As you can see below on Clifford's interception in the first quarter. He has Strange for an easier checkdown. While it may not have picked up a huge chunk of yardage, it would've been a safer throw for the sixth-year quarterback than trying to get it to Harrison Wallace III (#6) going across the middle. While there may be some blame on Wallace being on the play as well, it's these types of plays that Clifford ultimately can't make going forward. Better vision and Penn State likely picks up a handful of yards and with how Brenton Strange has played this year, it's quite possible the Nittany Lions could've picked up a first down on this play as well.
Strange has arguably been Penn State's biggest offensive weapon all season and getting him the ball just one time just cannot happen. Part of that is on play calling, and part of that is on Clifford. End of the day, find the way to get the ball in the hands of your best players and let them make plays.
5. WR Parker Washington quietly had a very nice day with four receptions for 73 yards and was one of the few bright spots in the passing attack. Out of those 73 yards, 33 came on yards after the catch. He could've had more as well if Clifford would've been able to hit him early in the fourth quarter for what would've been a first down and much more. We've obviously already harped on some Clifford stuff quite a bit but it's those types of plays that you need your sixth-year quarterback to make. It's not always the interceptions that are hurting Penn State but it's the missed plays.
6. Third downs once again were a struggle for Penn State, converting on just 4-of-15 attempts, they'll need to do drastically better to beat the likes of Michigan and Ohio State. They did, however, go four-for-four on fourth-down attempts.
7. The offense did better this week with converting on turnovers with 14 of their 17 points coming off turnovers, converting on two-of-three opportunities.
8. Moving to the defensive side of the football, Manny Diaz has been terrific for Penn State this season. This defense has not missed a beat after losing Brent Pry the last offseason and through five games, Penn State's defense is allowing just 14.8 points per game and just 341 yards per game. Their 262 passing yards allowed per game is also a bit of an aberration as they've faced an average of 45 passing attempts per game this season but are keeping opposing quarterbacks to just a 49.6% completion percentage. On the ground, opposing offenses are only averaging 79.6 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry.
9. PJ Mustipher was a little rusty to start the season which isn't shocking but just one week removed from his season-ending injury last year against Iowa, PJ Mustipher appears to be fully back. The fifth-year defensive tackle led the Nittany Lions with eight tackles and was a crucial part of the Nittany Lions' abilities to keep Northwestern's rushing attack to just 31 carries on 28 attempts.
10. That's right, Northwestern was kept to just 31 yards on the ground in the game despite Evan Hull having a long of 29 yards in the game. In the second half, Penn State didn't allow a single yard on the ground as the Wildcats' had eight carries for -9 yards. In general, Penn State's defensive line dominated throughout the game, which is notable as Northwestern is the best offensive line they've likely faced yet.
11. When it comes to the pass defense, you're not going to complain too much about keeping opposing quarterbacks to 15-for-37 for 210 yards and one touchdown. The big play that obviously stands out is the 47-yard touchdown from Hilinski to Jacob Gill. On the play, the Nittany Lions entrusted freshman linebacker Abdul Carter to cover Gill in the slot, and with no safety help, it was a recipe for disaster.
That being said, another eight pass breakups for Penn State today, they're up 49 on the season.
12. Ji'Ayir Brown had a solid day himself including six tackles, one tackle for a loss, and one interception. He now has two interceptions and a forced fumble in the last three games.
13. Penn State's special teams were cleaned up quite a bit against Northwestern, they were solid in kickoffs, Parker Washington returned one punt for 12 yards and Jake Pinegar made both his extra points and his only field goal attempt. Barney Amor of course remains one of the best punters in the country, he only averaged 40 yards on his five punts on Saturday but all landed inside Northwestern's 20-yard line.
14. Despite the five turnovers on Saturday, Penn State still is +6 in turnover margin. With the fumbles in my opinion more likely not being a consistent issue going forward, that number could grow by quite a bit as the season progresses.
15. Penn State dominated the time of possession in this one which isn't too surprising, the Nittany Lions' totaled 37:28 in the game to Northwestern's 22:32.
16. You can't really look around the country and say this team did this and this team did that but at the end of the day, Penn State found a way to a win a game in which their offense didn't bring anywhere near their best. Winning isn't always easy, it's not going to always be pretty. Yes, the last two games have shown some concerning trends but as the skies clear in Happy Valley entering week six, Penn State is 5-0 and is inside the top 10 in both the AP and Coaches polls.
17. That being said, overall, Penn State might be 5-0 going into the bye week but it's hard to get a solid grasp of where the team stands as they head into their bye week. After their 41-12 win over Auburn, it seemed like Penn State had potentially turned a corner and had a chance to be a truly dominant team this season. However, after last week's sleepwalk win over Central Michigan and Saturday's win over Northwestern, there are surely more questions regarding the Nittany Lions as they enter a crucial part of their schedule. The bye week comes at a good time for James Franklin's program as there is plenty to clean up on both sides of the ball but especially offensively.