Darkest before dawn: Penn State youth spur turning point for season and future
The monkey is finally off Penn State’s back. It took 336 days, but there’s not too many more meaningful wins for the program than beating Michigan in the Big House. The victory not only serves as a major inflection point for the Nittany Lions, but it pours gasoline on the dumpster fire that is the Jim Harbaugh situation in Ann Arbor.
“It can’t just be a one-win thing,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “It has to continue these next couple weeks, and that’s how we have to finish out the season. I think that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to use this as a momentum shift in our season and continue to win football games.”
For seemingly every person in the world, 2020 can’t wrap up soon enough. Penn State football is no different. While the talent on this team was pegged as good enough to compete for the College Football Playoff, a variety of factors have contributed to a 1-5 start. The fans have begun to hop off the bandwagon, and when looking at the recruits for the Class of 2021, it doesn’t look like the Lions are headed for a much better season next year.
That was until Saturday against Michigan, when the stars of the game were several underclassmen. Beginning with the offense, five of the starters were first- or second-year players.
Freshman Parker Washington, who was projected to be Penn State’s third receiver at the start of the year, was Clifford’s go-to target against the Wolverines. He was targeted 11 times, catching 9 of them for a career-high 93 yards. While Jahan Dotson has been the lead receiver, Washington’s performance in Ann Arbor was no flash in the pan. He’s finished with at least 70 receiving yards in four games and averages 11.6 yards a catch.
Then there was the freshman running back tandem of Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes, Penn State’s fourth- and fifth-string running backs in September. Lee had the best game of the year by any Lions running back, becoming the first back since December 2019’s Cotton Bowl to record 100 yards in a game for the Lions.
“That was our fourth and fifth-team running back,” Franklin said after the game. “And I don’t mean that in a negative way. You know we had one of the most respected running back rooms in the country. And to be in this situation where we’ve got two true freshmen carrying the full load and to see them do it … it’s great to see, and I’m proud of them.”
Holmes chipped in an additional 34 yards on 10 carries as Penn State had its best day on the ground as a team. Lee averages 5.5 yards a carry. That average ranks 8th in the Big Ten among players with at least 41 carries. Not only will Lee and Holmes be back for at least 2 more years, but both Devyn Ford and Noah Cain are only sophomores as well.
The running game was aided by Penn State’s offensive line playing like the unit it was expected to be this summer. Penn State QBs had been sacked an average of 4 times a game entering this past weekend, but the offensive line was able to hold off Michigan’s Kwity Paye and Co. for much of the game, allowing just 1 sack. The group will likely lose three starters this offseason to graduation and/or the NFL, but freshman right tackle Caedan Wallace was a significant contributor against Michigan, and Rasheed Walker and Juice Scruggs should both be back in 2021.
Additionally, in need of a replacement for Pat Freiermuth, freshman Theo Johnson made his first career start and redshirt freshman Brenton Strange added another reception to his total for the year. Saturday marked the first time in program history that Penn State had true freshmen starting the same game at running back, wide receiver and tight end (Lee, Washington and Johnson).
Defensively, first- and second-year players contributed 14 of Penn State’s 51 tackles.
With Tariq Castro-Fields and Keaton Ellis not playing, the Lions had only three available cornerbacks. The secondary responded, holding the Wolverines to just 112 yards passing. Sophomore Marquis Wilson had a career-high 5 tackles and freshman corner Daequan Hardy made a strip-sack of Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara in the 4th quarter, which should have won the game for Penn State if not for a little-known rule that resulted in a penalty.
For the young players, they’ve never grown accustomed to being part of a successful winning program, and that may be the best mindset. Ignorance is bliss, and 2020 is the norm for them. With new faces leading the charge to turn this season around, perhaps the future isn’t quite as bleak.
“There have been things that would have put us in a rut, we would have had a hard time fighting back through that, when it doesn’t feel fair,” Franklin said. “But life isn’t fair. Sometimes you just got to find a way to battle through it. We did that today, so it was just great to see.”