5 things I liked about Penn State's first win of the year
There hasn’t been much to like this season for Penn State, but there certainly was plenty to love about Saturday in Ann Arbor. The Nittany Lions picked up their first win in nearly a full calendar year, and James Franklin was probably as happy as he’s been since early August.
“We’re gonna have victory Monday dinner, which is gonna be the most delicious thing I’ve tasted in my whole life,” Franklin said following his team’s 27-17 win over Michigan.
Penn State led from start to finish and finally had a celebratory locker room scene, one with dancing teammates rather than hanging heads. The Lions were far from perfect, but these 5 things were what I liked most about their first win in the Big House since 2009:
1. Scoring first
It had been a long time since Penn State started a game on the right foot. Not since Week 1 against Indiana had the Lions scored on their opening drive. Leading into the Michigan game, Penn State had been outscored 117-33 in the first half.
Not only did Penn State march down the field for an impressive 10-play, 75-yard opening drive for a touchdown, but Parker Washington and Keyvone Lee both looked impressive. Washington had one of the best 20-yard catches of the season for Penn State, busting several tackles, and the freshman Lee, starting for an inactive Devyn Ford, carried the ball 7 times for 39 yards.
Even better, the defense finally stepped up and held an opponent off the board on its first series for the first time all season. Underclassmen recorded 4 tackles on the drive, which bodes wells for fans looking for any sort of optimism about the future.
Penn State went on to finish the half up 17-7, its first halftime lead of the season.
2. Parker Washington emerges
Jahan Dotson entered Saturday trailing only Indiana’s Ty Fryfogle in receiving yards in the Big Ten, but it was the freshman Washington through whom Penn State ran its passing game.
Washington got off to a hot start on Penn State’s first series with a 20-yard catch on which he broke several tackles. Sean Clifford looked to him early and often, and at one point Washington accounted for 93 of Penn State’s 124 passing yards.
KJ Hamler was really good.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 28, 2020
Washington went on to finish with career-bests and game-highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (93). He was targeted 11 times. Clifford looked like he regained his swagger, finishing 17-of-28 for 163 yards. Not a flashy statline, but he didn’t do anything to lose the game, something Penn State’s QBs haven’t achieved all year.
With tight end Pat Freiermuth also out with an injury for the rest of the year, the Lions needed a new receiving weapon to emerge outside of Dotson. Washington now has 4 games this season with at least 70 receiving yards and may have a bright future for several seasons to come.
3. No Turnovers
It’s amazing what happens when you don’t shoot yourself in the foot.
For the first time all season, Penn State finished without a turnover, and for the first time all season Penn State finished with a win.
Clifford already had more interceptions through 5 games this year (8) than he did in 12 games in 2019 (7). He didn’t really take any dangerous shots down the field, but he also never had any bewildering decisions, which had become a habit this year.
Penn State had a fumble in 4 of its 5 games this year, and the two freshman running backs held onto the ball all game, even while doing a great job of fighting for extra yards.
The Lions’ special teams and defense forced just a single turnover, but the Wolverines had another muffed punt that they recovered, and Penn State appeared to have won the game when Cade McNamara fumbled in the 4th quarter, but Shaka Toney was flagged for batting the ball in bounds.
If Penn State can continue to play clean, mistake-free football, it will find itself not in the need of second-half comebacks like had been the case through the first 5 weeks.
4. An offensive line that wasn’t offensive
Like the rest of the Penn State team, the offensive line was supposed to have been the best in recent memory at Happy Valley, but had ultimately failed to assert its dominance until this week.
Penn State had allowed 4.0 sacks a game, only better than 5 teams in the country. Against Michigan, Clifford was sacked only once, and other than an awkward hit in the 2nd quarter that sidelined him for a series, he stayed pretty clean in the pocket all day.
A Penn State running back had yet to have a 100-yard game this season, and that looked like a trend that was going to continue given that the Lions were down to only a pair of freshman backs with any experience.
Instead Lee had 134 yards on 22 carries, Caziah Holmes added another 34 yards, and Clifford was effective running the ball for 73 yards. The team’s 254 rushing yards were a high for the season.
5. Battling through adversity
The big-picture adversity was clear: 0-5 for the first time in program history and a laundry list of missing players due to injury or opt-outs, all during a pandemic. Not exactly the ingredients for a winning recipe.
Throw in a holiday week in which the team couldn’t share a Thanksgiving meal together and even the team’s hotel wifi being down, making pregame Zoom meetings impossible, and the cards were stacked against Penn State.
Somehow the Lions fought through it all. Lesser teams would have already waved the white flag at this point, but the fact Penn State is still fighting shows that at the very least, the players still have faith in their head coach, regardless of how fans feel about him.
With games against Rutgers and Michigan State remaining, who’s to say now that Penn State doesn’t capitalize on this momentum and win out?