Penn State football: Are the Nittany Lions trending in the right direction?
Prior to the season, I examined 5 statistical trends Penn State needed to reverse to turn its fortunes around this season.
As the interminable bye week drags on before the No. 10 Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 B1G) travel to Ann Arbor a week from Saturday to face No. 4 Michigan in The Big House, let’s assess the progress.
This a preliminary report, of course, as Penn State hasn’t faced a ranked team yet or any of its B1G East rivals. Still, the numbers are encouraging. Penn State has changed its approach on both sides of the ball, seemingly for the better.
Here’s a breakdown on where things stand in regards to the issues raised just over a month ago:
Declining sack totals
The issue: Penn State produced 27 sacks in 2021, its first sub-30 total in a full season since 2013.
Progress report: Under aggressive new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, Penn State employs young, slightly undersized but lightning quick athletes on the edges and throughout the defense. Diaz gambles with blitzes more than predecessor Brent Pry. It paid off in a big way with 6 sacks in a dismantling of Auburn, but the Lions have only 6 combined in the other 4 games.
The current pace would result in modest improvement to 31 sacks this season, but the Lions also have 23 QB hurries, just 1 off their total for all of last year. The pressure is forcing opposing quarterbacks to speed up their process, which is paying off for the team’s nationally recognized secondary.
Preseason prediction: PSU will improve, reaching at least 35 sacks.
Updated prediction: I’ll count on Diaz’s creativity and the progress of the true freshmen and other young players. At least 35 sacks, along with a bunch more QB hurries.
Tackles for loss allowed
The issue: This stat, which combines sacks and other plays that fail to get back to the line of scrimmage, encapsulated the offensive line’s struggles in 2021. Penn State gave up a B1G-worst 34 sacks last year, and 58 other negative-yardage plays. At 92 tackles for loss allowed, the Lions ranked 13th in the league and 113th in the nation. It’s no wonder they were 13th in the B1G and 117th in the country in yards per carry (3.21) — they went backward to the tune of 344 yards (26.5 per game).
Progress report: The team has allowed 23 TFL (7th in B1G) for 80 negative yards. The run game, led by true freshman backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, averages 192.6 yards per game and almost 5 per carry in OC Mike Yurcich’s revamped offense. Extrapolating the numbers, PSU would finish with 60 TFL allowed, a major improvement. So far, the offensive line has been much better than last year’s group.
Preseason prediction: Modest improvement keeps the Lions out of the bottom 5 in the B1G in the category, meaning at least their 3rd best season under Franklin.
Updated prediction: The competition level ramps up starting Oct. 15 against the Wolverines, but I think this improvement — and my preseason prediction — will hold.
Usage rate of lead running back
The issue: The team wasn’t getting enough from its lead running back, partly because it didn’t have one. A share-the-ball approach was stifling all involved. No PSU back has had a 1,000-yard season since 2018, and no back had produced a 100-yard rushing game in 16 outings through the Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas. Touches for the No. 1 back dropped steadily from 300 for Saquon Barkley in 2016 to 123 for Keyvone Lee in 2021.
Progress report: Singleton and Allen have gotten increased touches game by game, and so far seem to complement rather than stifle each other. Singleton leads with 63 carries to Allen’s 57, and they both have 3 receptions. Singleton is on pace for 172 touches and will probably wind up with more than that if he stays healthy. He already has 5 runs of 40+ yards, so every touch improves the odds for explosive plays. He’s already had 2 100-yard games and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season.
Preseason prediction: Penn State again overplays its depth, and these ugly trends continue for another year. Wait till 2023!
Updated prediction: Singleton will be RB1, but he won’t dominate the playing time. Allen and Lee have made solid contributions and will continue to get snaps. Singleton’s emergence as the clear No. 1 is still a year away.
Red zone TD percentage
The issue: In 2017 and 2018, no one in the Big Ten was better than Penn State at converting red zone trips into TDs. In 2019, Sean Clifford’s first season as the starting quarterback, that ranking dropped to 3rd — still plenty respectable. But the past 2 seasons, the Lions have been 12th and 11th. After 3 straight seasons scoring TDs in the red zone at better than a 70 percent clip, PSU dropped off to 51.4% in 2020 and then 47.6% last year.
Progress report: Penn State has scored 16 TDs in 20 red zone trips, an 80 percent success rate. I’d say that’s improvement. A big change has been the ability to run the ball across the goal line. The Lions already have more rushing TDs this year (12) than all of last year (11), and 9 have been from the red zone.
Preseason prediction: QB Sean Clifford and Yurcich get in sync, the young guys liven things up and Penn State finishes in the top half of the league.
Updated prediction: Penn State currently ranks 5th in the B1G in this category. The freshman backs, Yurcich’s 3-TE heavy package and transfer WR Mitchell Tinsley’s craftiness in tight spaces should allow the Lions to maintain that standing.
Record in 1-score games
The issue: Red zone success really, really matters in close games, as do ball-control clock-eating offense and crunch-time shutdown defense. At various times over the past 2 seasons, Penn State has shown itself to be lacking in all those areas. The result: a 2-6 record in 1-score games over 2020-21.
Progress report: The Lions are 1-for-1, their 35-31 comeback victory over Purdue to open 2022. Clifford did go 4-1 in such games as a first-year starter back in 1970 — er, 2019. So there’s hope, right?
Preseason prediction: PSU progresses to the mean, going .500 in 1-score games, 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the B1G.
Updated prediction: I’ll stick with .500. The Lions win 1 more 1-score game and lose 2, finishing 10-2 and 7-2. And 11-2 after a bowl win, just as I predicted the day the season kicked off.