7 way-too-early predictions for Penn State's offense in 2022
Last season, Penn State produced its worst scoring average since 2015 and never had anyone rush for 100 yards in a game.
Nittany Lions fans will want to hope that the offense hit bottom in 2021, but huge question marks remain as the unit looks to replace 3 of its top 5 linemen and superstar receiver/first-round NFL Draft pick Jahan Dotson. It could get ugly — again — but spring is the season of hope. So here are 7 cautiously optimistic predictions for Sean Clifford’s last hurrah:
Clifford finishes strong, sets records
The haters are going to want to stick asterisks in the PSU record book (* got extra year because of COVID-19), but like it or not, Sean Clifford sits poised to become the program’s first 10,000-yard career passer.
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At 7,839 passing yards, Clifford needs to throw for 2,061 yards to pass Trace McSorley as the school’s all-time leader and another 100 after that to hit the 10k milestone. Barring a significant injury or a benching, it’s going to happen. And neither of those is likely for the tough, durable, highly experienced 24-year-old.
Clifford’s 2 bad stretches came when the team lost its top 2 running backs — and was otherwise just not ready to play — at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic season and when he himself was banged up in the second half of last season.
He’ll be fresh, healthy and confident to start his final campaign, and very well could have the kind of start he had in 2019 (8-0 and No. 5 in the country) and in 2021 (5-0, No. 4).
Allar gets a taste, but Veilleux is No. 2
Assuming the Lions have at least a couple of cupcake games (perhaps Ohio in Week 2 and Central Michigan in Week 4), 5-star freshman QB Drew Allar might get to take a few snaps and even throw a few passes. But nothing so far this spring indicates that he’s ready to play in front of 100,000-plus in a game that matters. RS freshman Christian Veilleux, who was the No. 2 behind Clifford in the Blue-White scrimmage, will hold that spot entering the fall. He’ll be the primary reliever if Clifford can’t go, as he was in a strong performance against Rutgers last season.
Staff continuity nets small gains
Mike Yurcich returns for his second year running the offense, the first time since Ricky Rahne’s second and final year at the controls in 2019 that Penn State hasn’t had a brand new offensive coordinator. Phil Trautwein, the line coach, enters his third season at PSU. An extra year working together, and under James Franklin, needs to create better cohesion.
Yurcich must create an attack that doesn’t ask too much of a young, inexperienced group up front. Slow-developing plays, run or pass, will lead to disaster. Trautwein, for his part, needs to give Yurcich something to work with. The line cannot be wretched in both run and pass blocking, as it was last year.
Running game still struggles, but …
But Penn State will end its skid of 16 games without a 100-yard rusher. Franklin has promised a renewed dedication to fixing the running game. The guess here is that Keyvone Lee or 5-star freshman Nick Singleton will bust the century mark sometime in the first 3 weeks, most likely Lee.
The line could be better if Sal Wormley, Olu Fashanu and Landon Tengwall can live up to their hype. According to Franklin, Wormley and Fashanu possibly would have started to open 2021 had they not been dealing with injuries. (Wormley missed the entire season; Fashanu played down the stretch and started in the bowl game.) And Tengwall, Penn State’s only top-100 recruit in 2021, worked his way into the rotation late in the season.
With grad transfer Hunter Nourzad from Cornell joining the mix this summer, maybe the Lions won’t miss Mike Miranda, Eric Wilson or even 7th-round NFL pick Rasheed Walker too much. Juice Scruggs and Caedan Wallace return to anchor the group.
If this group comes together and the staff makes adjustments to scheme and philosophy, the Lions should improve at least slightly on their averages of 3.2 yards per carry and 107.8 rushing yards per game.
Top 2 receivers thrive
Even with Dotson gone, Penn State still will have a dynamic duo at receiver. With Parker Washington returning and transfer Mitchell Tinsley arriving after a monster year at Western Kentucky, the passing game shouldn’t miss a beat.
Washington posted 64 catches for 820 yards and 4 TDs while working in Dotson’s shadow. Tinsley racked up 87 catches for 1,402 yards and 14 TDs as the Hilltoppers’ No. 2 receiver. They’ve already been working together throughout the spring, thanks to Tinsley arriving in January.
Penn State isn’t suddenly going to morph into run-heavy offense. These guys will get scads of chances to make spectacular grabs — and hopefully catch a lot more in stride! Both should have a shot at 1,000 yards, and they’re almost certain to hit 2,000 combined if they stay healthy.
Yurcich invokes Moorhead’s fun factor
We saw brief glimpses of innovative play-calling early last season, with freshman tight end Tyler Warren working from the backfield in goal-line packages and a formation against Auburn with a lineman split way out wide as if he were an eligible receiver.
But it sure got bland and boring after that, and Yurcich needs to recreate the unpredictable, wide-open attack from the recent glory days (2016-17) under OC Joe Moorhead. Remember when the backup QB took the field in a multi-slash role called the Lion position? Remember when play fakes and read-option fakes actually moved defenders? With its 3 young, athletic tight ends, the receivers mentioned above and an incoming 5-star back, Penn State should have the weapons to broaden its attack.
Scoring average goes up a bit
In 2017, Moorhead’s second and final season as PSU’s offensive coordinator, the Lions scored 41.1 points per game, the 7th-best average in the country. A steady decline followed, with a slight uptick in 2019 as the only break in the pattern.
A look back at what Moorhead did and what his successors have undone:
2016 (Morehead): 37.6 ppg, 21st of 130 FBS teams
2017 (Moorhead): 41.1 ppg, 7th
2018 (Ricky Rahne): 33.8 ppg, 32nd
2019 (Rahne): 35.8 ppg, 15th
2020 (Kirk Ciarrocca): 29.8 ppg, 54th
2021 (Yurcich): 25.0 ppg, 90th
Bottom line, Penn State’s offense hasn’t been this bad since the sanctions-addled years of 2014 (20.6 ppg) and 2015 (23.2). Those seasons produced 7-6 records, just like last year. The program needs to break this pattern, or even the most patient of fans will be howling to gut the offensive staff and start over. (Moorhead is the new head coach at Akron, by the way.)
I’ll put the over-under on PSU’s output at an even 30.0 ppg.