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Game Recap: Nittany Lions complete first comeback of 2020 season

During the first five games of the 2020 season, Penn State stumbled into a destructive pattern: fall behind by double-digits in the first half, make a spirited but desperate second-half comeback, lose game.

Against Michigan State on Saturday, in what may or may not have been their final home game of the season, the Nittany Lions once again fell behind early, as the Spartans rode the assured passing of redshirt freshman quarterback Payton Thorne to a 21-10 halftime lead. But this time, Penn State responded to a surge by its opponent with a devastating counterpunch. The Lions dominated the second half and came away with a 39-24 victory Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Jahan Dotson was the catalyst behind Penn State’s first home victory of the season, both as receiver and as a return specialist. It was Dotson’s 81-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter that broke the game open, giving the Lions a comfortable lead.

It had seemed in the first half as though Penn State was in big trouble. After a rough start – he was intercepted on his first pass of the day – Thorne settled in and carved up the Lions’ defense in a masterful 21-point second-quarter performance. But Penn State tightened up in the second half and held off Michigan State for its third win in a row.

“I thought we were very explosive in the second half on offense, and obviously the special teams came up big for us today,” coach James Franklin said after watching his team improve to 3-5. “The punt return was huge. I thought we played complementary football. There were times when the offense wasn’t in rhythm, and the defense played well. There were times when the defense was struggling, and the offense was able to step up. Same thing on special teams. I thought we played complementary football, and I’m proud of those guys, I really am.”

Here’s a look at the good and the bad:


THE GOOD

• Penn State clamped down on Thorne in the second half after spending the second quarter on its heels. The Nittany Lions held Michigan State to 149 yards and three points in the game’s final 30 minutes. They made a couple of pivotal red zone stands, forcing the Spartans to settle for a field goal after they had earned a first down at the 4-yard line, then keeping them out of the end zone late in the fourth quarter while protecting a 15-point lead.

The first of those two stands came at a key point in the game, as Penn State had cut Michigan State’s lead to three points early in the second half and didn’t want to see its deficit balloon back up to 10.

“That was a huge drive right there, holding them to a field goal, and then our offense being able to do some things,” Franklin said. “I think the game could have been different if they score [a touchdown] right there.”

Franklin said Penn State’s biggest problem in the first half was that it was giving up too many yards on first and second down. “They were always ahead of the sticks early in the game,” he said. “But we were able to get everyone calmed down and make some subtle adjustments and play better defensive football – gap sound, gap accountable – which was big.”

• Once again, the Nittany Lions made their quarterback rotation work. Backup Will Levis did his usual short-yardage thing, rushing for several key first downs and a 1-yard touchdown, and he also completed 3 of 3 passing attempts for 54 yards.

Starter Sean Clifford had 280 yards of total offense, with a pair of touchdown passes and a 31-yard scoring run. Neither he nor Levis threw an interception. That was crucial, as Michigan State’s defense boasts one of the nation’s premier ball hawks in cornerback Shakur Brown, who went into the weekend tied for the lead nationally with five interceptions.

“We’ve been saying for a while that we have two quarterbacks who we want to use,” Franklin said. “I’m glad that we threw [with] Will [in the game] today. I think we can do more of that. Obviously, we want to be more balanced with how we’re using Will, and we continue to talk about that. So I was glad to see that happen today, and we need to do more of it. I’ve been saying for weeks now that we’re going to use both of them in 2020, and we’ve got another game [in which to do that] once we figure out who we’re playing.”

• Once the Nittany Lions began targeting Dotson, he repeatedly came up big. The junior wideout finished with eight catches for 108 yards in addition to his game-changing punt return.

Dotson’s success had the added benefit of opening things up for Parker Washington. The true freshman wideout was all alone on a 49-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter and finished the afternoon with four catches for 95 yards and a pair of scores.

• Franklin had been worried about Michigan State’s punt- and kickoff-return units, but the Spartans finished with just 30 total return yards.

• Penn State got a drive-extending first down when it rushed up to the line of scrimmage on a punt attempt in the fourth quarter, drawing Michigan State offside. It was a smart call that allowed the Lions to maintain possession as they were trying to run out the clock.


THE BAD

Penn State Nittany Lions Football
WR Tre'Von Morgan's 26-yard score in the second quarter was one of three touchdown passes for Michigan State.

• Penn State struggled to stop Michigan State’s passing game for much of the afternoon, as Thorne completed 22 of 39 passes for 325 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. Of those yards, 190 came in the second quarter, when he went 10 of 10 with three TDs.

• The Nittany Lions weren’t very opportunistic on defense. Even after intercepting Thorne on Michigan State’s first possession of the game, they gave the ball back in a matter of seconds, as safety Jaquan Brisker fumbled while being tackled on the return. Then, on the final play of the third quarter, Daequan Hardy dropped a sure interception that landed in his hands.

• Penn State was up and down in the red zone. On its first possession, Keyvone Lee muscled into the end zone for an apparent 9-yard touchdown, but the run was negated by a holding call on Will Fries. The Nittany Lions ended up settling for a 24-yard Jake Pinegar field goal.

The Lions went into the game with one of the worst red zone offenses in the country. Through seven games, they had come away from their 28 red zone opportunities with 20 scores, a 71.4 percent success rate that ranked 113th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Only 12 of those scores were touchdowns.

• The Lions won the penalty battle, but they were flagged five times, including an offside call that gave Michigan State a first down on what would turn into a third-quarter field goal drive. Penn State was also penalized for being offside on a kickoff.


LOOKING AHEAD

Penn State ended its regular season not knowing anything about its Champions Week matchup. Who will the Nittany Lions play? Where will the game take place? Will there even be a game? It was all up in the air as of Saturday afternoon.

The league’s opacity wasn’t sitting well with Franklin earlier this week. But the Lions don’t have a whole lot of choice in how it plays out, and no matter who they end up facing, they’ll carry some momentum into the game, along with a sense of confidence and belief that may have been lacking earlier in the year.

“I’m proud of them,” Franklin said of his players. “It’s not something we’ve experienced or been through. To show that type of heart, to show that type of belief and brotherhood and to stick together and battle through – I’m very proud of them. I’m very proud of everybody. Again, it’s not easy to do. The past three weeks, we have found ways to win, which is really what we’ve done for seven years.”

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