Beginning at QB, here are 3 changes Penn State should make on offense
Each week seems to bring a new opportunity for Penn State reporters to dig into the record books and find comparisons to this turbulent season. But as the Lions prepare to face Iowa, there is no context for what awaits should Penn State lose.
Penn State has had a winless season before (1888), and has even twice lost four in a row under James Franklin (2014 and ’15), but never has it dropped to 0-5. The Lions have won 6 straight over the Hawkeyes, so something has to give.
From turnovers to defensive mishaps to slow starts, the first half of Penn State’s season has been one that can’t be forgotten soon enough. There’s still another month of games, however, to turn things around, beginning with the offense. These are 3 changes I’d like to see Penn State make as it heads down the season’s homestretch.
1. Make Will Levis QB1
There’s no shortage of blame to sprinkle around this team for its grim performance so far, but the play at the most important position is certainly a solid starting point. After leading the Lions to an 8-0 start in 2019 with the 5th-most efficient passing offense in the league, Sean Clifford has clearly regressed, and it starts with turnovers.
In Penn State’s last 10 possessions with Clifford at QB, 5 have ended in a turnover. Two of those were strip-sacks returned for 6. For a team that constantly preaches ball security, Clifford has become an untrustworthy leader for a unit that has enough issues without turning the ball over. Penn State’s turnover margin of -6 ranks 13th in the Big Ten.
“It’s hard to get into a rhythm, hard to get in a groove,” Franklin said after Saturday’s loss to Nebraska. “It’s hard to call (plays) when you don’t have the confidence (that) you’re not gonna turn the ball over.”
Franklin didn’t reveal a starter for the Iowa game during his Tuesday press conference, but why should he? Penn State needs every competitive advantage it can find, and not naming a starter until Saturday forces the Hawkeyes to prepare for two QBs. Ask Brent Pry about the difficulties that presented last week for his defense trying to prepare for both Luke McCaffrey and Adrian Martinez. McCaffrey completed 10 of his first 15 passes, was an effective runner, and Nebraska opened up a 27-6 lead.
Will Levis isn’t as skilled of a passer as Clifford. He needs to work on his accuracy and admitted as much following the Nebraska game. But while he lags behind Clifford in touch, he brings a stronger arm, a more physical running style and an energy that seems contagious.
Levis ultimately completed less than 50% of his passes (14-for-31), and 74 of his 219 yards came on one play, but just the possibility of something different, rather than sticking with the same plan that’s led to the 0-4 start, perhaps would infuse some spirit into teammates with few obvious reasons to feel motivated.
The sophomore QB said he only sparingly received reps with the first-team offense leading up to last week’s game. Figuring he probably spent close to half the time this week practicing with the starters, one would think he’d be a little more efficient against Iowa and have some better chemistry with his targets.
2020 doesn’t count as a year of eligibility, and Clifford would have likely stuck around for another season regardless, which certainly makes this QB decision a bit more tricky, but Penn State needs to explore its options under center with an eye for the future. Whether that means making the permanent move to Levis now, or eventually working in Ta’Quan Roberson, Franklin should use this lost season to his advantage and see what he has or doesn’t have at the QB position. Worst comes to worst, the QB of the future isn’t on this roster, and he attacks the transfer portal for an answer.
2. Let Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee flourish
After a slow start, Penn State’s running backs have been finding more and more success. With the addition of Levis, the Lions’ offense is likely to become even more reliant on running the ball. Devyn Ford has done a fine job given the scenario that unfolded at the start of Penn State’s season, when he was thrust from third option to lead back in the blink of an eye.
While the offensive line hasn’t gotten much push this season, there has been a lack of explosion out of the backfield too, something that Penn State has thrived on in seasons past with Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders and Journey Brown.
There’s still no question that Ford is the lead back, but dating to the Ohio State game when Holmes and Lee didn’t receive a single carry, Penn State’s rushing total has increased each week as the two freshmen have gotten more work.
Holmes and Lee combined for 12 carries against Nebraska as the Lions recorded a season-high 245 yards on the ground. Holmes’ 36-yard run in the 2nd quarter was the longest of the season for a Penn State running back, and Lee’s 31-yard touchdown was the longest scoring carry.
Both players average north of 5 yards per carry and have complemented Ford well. As with the QB room, more work for Holmes and Lee bodes well for the 2021 Penn State team, as the running back room could reemerge as one of the better groups in the conference.
3. Target Freiermuth more often, especially in red zone
It’s no secret Penn State has had difficulties in the red zone. The Lions have scored on just 12 of 19 trips. That rate of 63.2% ranks 123rd of 126 FBS programs. Penn State marched inside the Nebraska 20-yard line on each of its last 2 possessions, needing a touchdown to tie, and turned it over on downs both times.
After catching 8 touchdowns as a freshman and 7 as a sophomore, Pat Freiermuth has scored just once this season, all the way back in Penn State’s first series of the season. With 7 catches for 113 yards, Freiermuth had his best game of the season against the Cornhuskers, including a 74-yard reception from Levis where the tight end was tripped up at the 1.
While some of the drop in the star tight end’s scoring output can be attributed to increased attention from opposing defenses, PSU’s offensive philosophy seems to have changed, too. The team seems increasingly infatuated with throwing goal line fades to sub-6-foot receivers. Why the 6-foot-5 Freiermuth hasn’t been thrown to more in the end zone remains a puzzle.
Penn State’s offense ranks 10th in the Big Ten, scoring just 25.5 points a game. If Levis is able to refine his touch a bit more and throw it up for grabs where only his tight end can grab it, the Lions may be able to alleviate some of those scoring woes.