Column: As maturation takes place, Nittany Lions show signs of potency
Many Penn State fans left Beaver Stadium disgruntled Saturday, their Nittany Lions winners of a 17-10 defensive struggle against Pitt.
So much for James Franklin’s edict to appreciate and enjoy each win.
Complaints leveled against the Nittany Lions have been numerous, some specific to the game against the Panthers, others spread through the first three games of the schedule, all wins against nonconference opponents, none with more than one win to this point in the season.
The offensive line has once again proven to be an easy target, overwhelmed at times by opponents bringing numbers. Penn State’s receivers are again dropping passes, some easier than others, but many of which seem to be within reason. Converting on just 23.3 percent of third downs, the Nittany Lions also hold the 125th position in college football both in third downs as well as time of possession.
Even the Nittany Lion defense, anticipated to be one of college football’s best ahead of the season, finished the nonconference portion of the schedule allowing a robust 323.3 yards per game. Against the Panthers, quarterback Kenny Pickett at times looked like an all-conference performer, completing 35 of 51 passes for 372 yards through the air. Maybe more troubling to some fans, Penn State’s vaunted defensive line struggled to get to Pickett or make him look uncomfortable in the pocket, sacking him just three times in a game loaded with opportunities.
Franklin, sensing the consternation brewing for fans and manifest through the mouths of media members, ticked off the improvements necessary for the Nittany Lions as the bye week and, next weekend, the Big Ten season commences.
“The early story of the game was (that) they were able to pressure and get to our quarterback, maybe not sacks, but they were able to hit him and get pressure on him,” Franklin said. “We weren't able to get pressure on their quarterback. I thought that was the early story of the game.
“We gotta get to the quarterback more consistently. We came into the season really feeling like that was going to be a strength of ours and it hasn't necessarily shown up that way.”
Starting quarterback Sean Clifford, meanwhile, spent time in the postgame lamenting his own mistakes and the improvements he’d also like to make.
“I think that third-down is one,” Clifford said. “I think that explosive plays down the field. Today I should have played better in that regard. I think that I missed some deep balls that I usually hit and I know I can hit. So those two are definitely big. And I think just in the run game a little bit, maybe making a couple more plays. I think I can do that too.”
Lost in the public penance, however, was an underlying reality among the Nittany Lions, counter to the prevailing sense of dread at Beaver Stadium.
Admittedly a young team with new pieces at critical positions including quarterback, running back, receiver, defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety, won a rivalry game in which their opponent played well and they did not.
An offense that had spent the first two weeks of the season with the nation’s No. 2-ranked scoring offense, posting an average of 62.0 points per outing, simply couldn’t click against the Panthers. Seven deep shots down the field, a hallmark of the Nittany Lions’ explosive offensive philosophy, all missed. Saddled with abysmal starting field position throughout the game, they still managed to produce two touchdown drives of 98 and 88 yards.
A defense that allowed 396 yards on the day, meanwhile, still clamped down when it mattered most. Allowing just one touchdown drive to a Panther offense that made clutch plays all afternoon, the Nittany Lions largely kept their opponent out of the end zone and, in many ways, picked its struggling offense up.
And, largely overlooked, Penn State’s special teams, a problem spot throughout the 2018 season, was an integral piece of the win. With placekicker Jordan Stout setting a Penn State record with a 57-yard field goal to end the first half and punter Blake Gillikin pinning the Panthers inside their 20-yard line on six of his seven punts, the Nittany Lion kicking specialists were nothing short of tremendous.
“It was a gritty win in all three phases, special teams, offense, and defense,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “I think when the offense isn't going at the pace it wants to go, I think we know the defense has our backs and when the defense needs some points, I think we're capable of putting up points. I think it was just a gritty win in all three phases.”
Armed with a learning experience that will be far more beneficial to the team’s future successes than a dominating performance could ever be, the Nittany Lions should move forward into the Big Ten schedule with an attitude of optimism.
That attitude will be tested in the coming days and weeks, no doubt, progress becoming an absolute necessity if wins are going to come against better opponents that are looming.
Offensively, the blueprint is set for opponents. Defenses will throw the kitchen sink at Clifford, who asserted that he is “seeing the defenses pretty well” and “the game is really starting to slow down for” him, but the film suggests otherwise. The redshirt sophomore quarterback is still raw, though, and has already experienced growing pains and will undoubtedly endure more.
An offensive line that needs work but has, in reality, largely held its ground, is going to need better help in pass protection from Penn State’s inexperienced running backs that have so far been overwhelmed by blitzes.
And Penn State’s offensive assistant coaching staff will need to take those factors into account, not only working to quickly develop the weaknesses exhibited so far this season but also by making adjustments to help mitigate the strategy opponents are likely to use against them moving forward.
Surely though, receivers running the correct routes and better-thrown passes on deep balls - possibly an anomaly, but likely an area in which Clifford and his targets will need to grow together - would help.
Defensively, the fraction of a second separating the Nittany Lions from their target will be eliminated by more disciplined pass coverage in the secondary. Even though sacks have yet to flood in, Penn State’s 11 through three games is tied for 14th nationally and coming at a pace the staff will gladly take.
More important, team defense - and coordinator Brent Pry’s approach - simply must improve on third downs. Leaving the Panthers with an average of 9.6 yards to go on 16 third downs Saturday, the Panthers converted five times and twice drew first down penalties, six of which extended possessions deep in Pitt’s territory and would have helped the Lions' starting field position battle.
Not including negative-yardage plays, the Panthers accumulated 132 of their 396 total yards on the day on just nine third-down plays. A 14.6 yards per play average on those nine plays, it far exceeded the 4.0 yards per play average in the Panthers’ 65 other offensive plays for the afternoon. And of the Panthers' 11 chunk plays, all passes, five were on third or fourth down. Six came while needing 11-or-more yards to obtain a first down.
There is more good news than bad for the Nittany Lions as they are currently comprised, though.
Improvements must be made, but the core identity of this team, one built on the foundation of explosive playmakers making explosive plays, can be successful throughout the Big Ten season. The league remains overwhelmingly offensively challenged, and many of the programs that can produce points will struggle to stop them.
In Penn State’s next three games, when development will be most crucial to success later in the season, the Lions will face a Maryland team that could only muster 17 against Temple, a Purdue team that managed just 13 in a home loss to TCU, and an Iowa team coming off an 18-17 bruising win at Iowa State.
If Penn State’s offense has kinks to work out - and it undeniably does - these are the opponents to get it done against while maintaining an opportunity to win.
Rather than taking on a woe-is-me approach following Saturday’s scare, the Nittany Lions should now be emboldened by the possibilities that can exist for a team versatile enough to overcome opponents determined to take away one aspect of the game, whether it be through its offense, defense, or special teams. Saturday, the defense bailed out the Lions’ offense. In future games, the reverse will likely need to be true. Through three games, both seem possible.
The cumulative effect of a team capable of playing truly complementary football is potent. Needing a foundation to build upon for every new season, it’s one the Nittany Lions should come out of Saturday approaching with optimism.