Penn State takes a baby step on the road to recovery
It’s okay to feel good again, Penn State fans.
The Nittany Lions — and their true blue followers — needed something to celebrate in 2020, and a mediocre Michigan team accommodated that need Saturday at The Big House.
But Penn State’s first victory at Michigan since 2009 wasn’t only about Jim Harbaugh and Don Brown’s continuing ineptitude. The Lions played well, fixing problems and finding some answers for 2021 and beyond. There is hope.
Maybe, just maybe, the worst is over. Maybe 0-5 off a 41-21 loss to Iowa marks the low point. Maybe Saturday’s 27-17 victory is the first baby step on the road to recovery.
What improved …
Turnovers: The Lions had zero, winning the turnover battle for first time this season by forcing 1. They entered the game 124th of 127 teams in turnover margin, losing the battle by 1.8 TOs per game.
Red zone play: Penn State went 4-for-4 in the red zone, with 2 TDs and 2 FGs, before running out the clock to end the game. Entering the game, the Lions were 125th in the FBS at 65 percent in converting for points and tied for 116th in red zone TDs (45 percent). Last year, the numbers were 90.38 percent and 71.15 percent.
Fourth-down conversions: The Lions wised up and didn’t try any while stopping Michigan 2 of 3 times. Previously, Penn State had gone 7-of-15, 12th in the B1G, while going for it more than anyone in the league. Sometimes kicking a field goal or punting is a good play. And finally, Penn State was in a game in which that was unquestionably the right strategy.
Protecting the QB: The Lions entered the game worst in the B1G with 20 sacks against their QBs, 4 per game. There were still some breakdowns on Saturday, but only 1 sack.
What got solved …
Clifford is the QB: Finally getting the ball to his teammates and only his teammates, Sean Clifford proved he’s the best option at quarterback for the Lions as they are currently constituted. He runs well enough and picks his spots better than Will Levis. And he’s the best passer and leader the Lions have. Though he didn’t hit any deep balls, he did show excellent timing and accuracy on several key third-down conversions. Levis made the most of his moments against the Wolverines, proving his mettle as a special-situations runner out of the QB spot.
Running back depth: Keyvone Lee proved himself the team’s clear No. 1 available back and looks like he could and maybe should be No. 1 in 2021 even if everyone else is back. Lee ran on 4 of PSU’s first 5 plays, producing 2 first downs. He finished with 22 carries for 134 yards and a TD. If Devyn Ford and Noah Cain are both still around in 2021, James Franklin will have one of those “good problems to have.” Fellow true freshman Caziah Holmes had a couple of strong carries among his 10 carries for 34 yards.
Pass catchers emerging: Freshman Parker Washington became Clifford’s go-to guy in this one, especially in the first half when he had 7 of his 9 catches and 79 of his 93 yards on the day. Jahan Dotson had a quiet day, but a couple of his 3 catches came in clutch situations. With Pat Freiermuth done for the season, Isaac Lutz caught 3 balls and Brenton Strange 1. Clifford’s 163 passing yards don’t jump off the stat sheet, but PSU passed successfully when it had to and the QB had multiple reliable targets.
Pass defense: The Lions held Cade McNamara and Joe Milton to 112 yards on 13-28 passing. McNamara may have been affected by a sore shoulder suffered early in the game. But PSU’s young DBs collectively had a good day.
What was already positive …
Controlling game flow: In 4 of its 6 games, Penn State has outdone its opponent in yards and first downs — and by a fairly wide margin. Saturday was more of the same: Penn State outgained UM 417-286 in yards and 25-14 in first downs. The Lions held the ball for 36:36. Minus the Ohio State game, the Lions have outgained opponents by 124.6 yards per game. This year, the Lions are winning time of possession by 5-6 minutes per game.
If the problems with turnovers and red zone play can me minimized like they were Saturday, new OC Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense might pay dividends in future seasons.
What still needs work …
Defense up the middle: The middle of the D-line parted like the Red Sea several more times against Michigan, particularly on the Wolverines’ first TD drive, when Hassan Haskins zipped up the middle on a 59-yard run that set up his 2-yard TD — which also went right up the gut.
Kicking: Jordan Stout missed from 49 yards and sent the second half kickoff out of bounds. Jake Pinegar did go 2-for-2 on his FG tries to push PSU slightly above 50 percent on FGs this year.
Discipline: Three off-side calls, 2 on Jason Oweh, helped Michigan extend drives. Against better teams, that’ll get Penn State beat.
What comes next …
Finishing 2020: Penn State’s historic struggles probably are mostly a virus-influenced aberration. But the show must go on, at Rutgers, vs. Michigan State and then a crossover game, and the Lions should do everything they can to build on Saturday’s success. Entering 2021 on a 4-game winning streak would, to some extent, take some of the sting out of this season.
Penn State has had off-field struggles over the last couple years, handling the transfer portal horribly and suffering a drop-off in recruiting. But the PSU class of 2022 is currently ranked third in the nation, and 247’s recent rankings update lifts the Lions’ 2021 class from 8th to 6th in the B1G.
The 0-5 start made everybody who bleeds blue and white crazy. But maybe giving up on James Franklin, Ciarrocca and Clifford was a bit premature. Might as well hope for the best.
Saturday was a start.