3-2-1: At season midpoint, Penn State football faces crossroads moment
Penn State football, entering the 2021 season coming off one of the more brutal years in program history, continued where it left off by notching five-straight wins to open the new campaign. In the process, the Nittany Lions beat a Top 25-ranked Wisconsin team on the road in week one, eclipsed perennial SEC stalwart Auburn in front of a Beaver Stadium White Out, and got their revenge over the Indiana program that started their slide a year ago.
And yet, the events of last Saturday have upended that trajectory. Or have they?
Jumping out to a 17-3 lead at No. 3 Iowa last weekend at Kinnick Stadium, head coach James Franklin and the Nittany Lions saw their unblemished record unravel in a 23-20 loss to the Hawkeyes. Damaging enough, the manner in which the loss came to fruition proved even more dispiriting to the program's potential moving forward.
Watching a rash of starters and major contributors sidelined due to injuries, with the added insult of Iowa fans booing injury stoppages under the guise of claiming Penn State was embellishing them for strategic purposes, the Nittany Lions began their bye weekend facing an uncertain future. With senior captain defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher acknowledged as lost for the season, and fifth-year senior captain quarterback Sean Clifford's status in doubt, plus the health situations of Jonathan Sutherland, Devyn Ford, and John Lovett similarly up in the air, a collective unease has engulfed the perception of the program.
Where do the Nittany Lions go from here? Are the program's goals still within reach this season?
This is the Penn State football midseason 3-2-1:
Three things we learned
1) Paying their complements
The most important lesson through Penn State's first half of the season was fairly simplistic in nature.
From a coach in James Franklin who has hammered home the notion of offense, defense, and special teams all working together throughout his eight-season tenure with the Nittany Lions, the reality was very much that this season.
Penn State's offense, working under the direction of new coordinator Mike Yurcich, wasn't by any means perfect. Quarterback Sean Clifford was markedly improved on his performance from the 2020 season, completing 118 of 178 passes for 1,482 yards and 11 touchdowns against just five interceptions in 21 quarters of football. Receiver Jahan Dotson built on his sterling junior campaign with 43 catches for 494 yards and six scores. And on an "often enough" basis, the likes of Penn State's running backs, tight ends, and other receivers made the plays necessary to put up enough points to win.
More important, though, the Nittany Lions let the other units lift the team collectively.
Offense not working in the first half at Wisconsin? An opportunistic defense and special teams performance kept the score knotted at 0-0 to open the door to a 16-10 second-half win. Defense gives up a couple of 75-yard touchdown possessions to Auburn? Penn State's touchdown possessions of 88, 91, and 75-yards gave the Nittany Lions enough of a cushion to stave off any late pushes from the Tigers.
And through it all, the kicking and punting of Jordan Stout help to virtually eliminate any and all return game yardage, an advantage in which Penn State now holds a 338 yards to 41 yards edge for the season with Indiana owning the most success of any opponent at 23 return yards.
No bigger contrast could be shown than by how that dynamic shifted between the Nittany Lions' wins and their one loss this season. Lost in the muck of a situation where Stout's outstanding punting and a gritty effort from the defense couldn't overcome the holes that Iowa's special teams and defense created for the Nittany Lions' offense.
The first formula works. The departure from it doesn't.
2) The rushing attack needs work
Understatement of the season?
Before we get into what is and isn't with Penn State's running game, a component that just about everyone presumed would be one of the strengths of the offense given the expectations for an improved offensive line and the most competitive depth at running back in Franklin's tenure, let's go back to Mike Yurcich's thoughts on the importance of that component during a summer interview.
"I think one of the most interesting things about that is in football, you can simulate full speed pass game way easier," he said. "So what's difficult is to get good at the running game based on our rules in the NCAA, and the minimum amount of practices you get to tackle, and to have even your full equipment on, and to be able to thud up, and to be able to simulate the full force blocking and the impacts and the true cutting that's necessary. The running through tackles, the laying out. How many tackles where defenders are leaving their feet? I mean, every play. But in practice, there are very rare times that we actually leave our feet to make plays. So it's very difficult to get, in my opinion, good at the run game just based on practice.
"I think your run game will get better over time throughout the season because you're getting actual practice in games if you will. And that's a tough pill to swallow because we have to get good at the run game, and we have to be physical and come downhill. I mean, this is Penn State. I mean, who are we kidding? We're gonna run the football running our physical mindset that's going to be our identity. And so to get good at that, just like anything, if you're going to play the piano and try to get good at the piano, what do you have to do? You have to play the piano. What's the best way to play the piano? When the lights are on. The recital. The more recitals you have, the more pressure is on you, the more you have to play in your tuxedo, the better you're gonna get. That's a fact. That's what's gonna happen. It's when the lights are on. The more times we can simulate the game and really play real football. We're going to get better at that. But you got to simulate the game as much as you possibly can. That's the challenge."
That's a lot to digest, no doubt, but the fact that Yurcich said it in June should clarify the situation a bit.
While Noah Cain's return from a season-long injury that kept him out all of 2020 has had difficulty kickstarting, and Keyvone Lee has had flashes of brilliance without consistency (including some trouble keeping the ball off the ground), and Devyn Ford has done some nice things, as has John Lovett, both of whom left the Iowa game and wouldn't play again, and the offensive line has yet to put it all together, this probably wasn't entirely unexpected to the architect of Penn State's offense.
What's interesting is that, for as limited as the Nittany Lions' ground game success has been this season, a 240-yard performance against Ball State and 209 yards on the ground against Villanova serving as the highlights, Penn State's yards per carry numbers have exceeded those of its opponents in all but the Wisconsin and Auburn games, and the offense's efficiency of yards per play has bested every opponent but Iowa.
With Clifford's status in doubt, how that component evolves from this point forward remains a critical, unknown ingredient toward Penn State's future successes or shortcomings offensively.
3) Brent Pry's defense came to play
Penn State's defense has been so effective this season that it's easy forget some of the serious questions that hovered over the unit before games got started.
After all, despite its four-game winning streak in which the Nittany Lions kept all of their opponents to 24-points-or-less to finish the 2020 season, it came after a five-game stretch in which every opponent posted at least 30-or-more.
The numbers this year speak for themselves, the Nittany Lions owning the nation's No. 4-ranked scoring defense at just 13.8 points per game, but the methodology to that success has been more important than the numbers themselves.
Able to be far more proficient in stopping the run as a foundational element to its strategy, fourth in the Big Ten in allowing just 111.3 yards per game (with the important caveat that opponents have needed obscene carries numbers to get there, all but Auburn finishing under 3.0 yards per carry this season), the opportunities for the Nittany Lion linebackers and secondary have followed. That has equated to 10 takeaways by the defense, a number that matches the group's output a year ago in three fewer games, and more important, a red zone performance ranked third.
Steadied by a stout front four that has produced two of Penn State's top-three graded performers according to PFF in Arnold Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa, with a back-end led by two of its top-four graded performers in safety Jaquan Brisker and corner Joey Porter Jr., the Nittany Lions' defensive effort has more than lived up to its task this season.
1) What will the offense look like without Sean Clifford?
Not to answer a question with a question, but,, this is really what it's all about, isn't it?
For absolute clarity, the status of Clifford after coming out of the game midway through the second quarter last Saturday at Iowa is completely unclear. He appeared on the sideline without visible ice, and outside of Franklin's comment Wednesday that he's dealing with something "common" at the quarterback position, and that Clifford will not be out for the remainder of the season, the timeline for a return could currently be anywhere between Illinois or Ohio State (which Chris Fallica suggested in his podcast this week) or, technically speaking, a bowl appearance.
However, considering that backup Ta'Quan Roberson and early enrollee freshman Christian Veilleux were the only scholarship quarterbacks working this week, and that Roberson's final stat line in nearly three quarters of work Saturday (7-20, 34 yards, 1 INT) were so markedly different from Clifford's (15-25, 146 yards, 2 INT with 1 rushing TD), there is little doubt that any and all missed time for the starter will be accompanied by changes to Penn State's offensive output.
To take a stab at answering this question, though, the lessons of 2020 shouldn't be far out of mind in this instance.
Already prioritizing limiting turnovers, here's guessing any games with Roberson at the helm will be marked by an even more extreme version of conservatism offensively. Backed by a defense and special teams capable of doing heavy lifting themselves, the need to establish a ground game, as defenses remain steadfast in trying to take it away, becomes even more paramount in its importance.
No doubt, Roberson will have to make some plays, and be helped by an offensive line, receivers, tight ends and running backs that did him few favors Saturday, but a departure in philosophy should not necessarily be considered a death knell for team success moving forward.
2) What will the defense look like without P.J. Mustipher?
If this isn't the question being asked as a close second to that of Clifford's absence at the midpoint of the season, it should be.
For as long as Franklin and Brent Pry have been at Penn State, their philosophical approach to defensive football has been rooted in the notion that a strong middle of the defense at tackle, linebacker, and safety creates the conditions for overall strength of the unit.
Well, in the season-ending injury to Mustipher in the first quarter of the game at Iowa, that theory will be tested and stressed more than the Nittany Lions would have ever considered possible this season. Penn State's best tackling lineman, an approach-altering presence in the middle of the group's front four, and one of its biggest mainstays in terms of reps per game on the defensive line, Mustipher earned every bit of his place as a midseason semifinalist for the Lombardi Award with 21 tackles, including 3.0 TFL and one sack.
Whether or not the collection of D'Von Ellies (also hurt in the game), Coziah Izzard, and Derrick Tangelo are up to the task of fulfilling an already thin responsibility at DT remains to be seen, but their combined performances are likely to play a significant role in Penn State's future defensive success.
One Prediction: Ta'Quan Roberson, with help, will improve
The cynic would say, of course, how could it get any worse?
That's not where I'm coming from here, though, and my sense is that Franklin would acknowledge himself to be in a similar place when it comes to the possibility Roberson holds for whatever time is necessary until Clifford's return.
Asked Wednesday about how Roberson has done bouncing back this week, the redshirt sophomore quarterback having already demonstrated his maturity by coming out to answer questions from the media for 10 minutes in the immediate aftermath of the loss at Kinnick, Franklin said this:
"These guys have played a lot of football throughout their careers, they've been in challenging situations," he said. "I wouldn't say -1, -2, -1 on the road in a hostile environment against the number three team in the country is how I would have drawn it up."
Nor would have Roberson, but the reality of his predicament was exacerbated by costly mistakes in communication with his offensive line, a couple of dropped passes, and maybe even some strategic error from a coaching perspective.
With enough time separating the performance with his next possible outing on Oct. 23, and a venue in Beaver Stadium, and an opponent in Illinois, all more favorable than what he and the Nittany Lions were faced with last weekend, the results will undoubtedly be better.
How much better should naturally include tempered expectations, but that improvement should be enough to at least allow the Nittany Lions offense to function in ways it was unable to last Saturday.
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