Penn State football final grades for the 2020 season: It's not about how you start, but how you finish
Penn State decided to opt out of the postseason, but it finished the year like a program that deserved to be in a bowl game despite its 4-5 record. The Nittany Lions failed to accomplish pretty much every on-field goal they set entering the season, but they were a resounding success off it, keeping everyone healthy and safe.
This season will always be the albatross on James Franklin’s resume, but even he admitted that he learned more about himself personally and professionally than in any other year of his life. Penn State finished the year below .500, but proved a lot about the program nonetheless while closing on a 4-game winning streak.
With this God-forsaken season now but a memory, here’s how the team graded out:
The coaching can really be boiled down to 2 different areas.
If we’re judging Franklin on X’s and O’s and clock management, there’s certainly a warranted amount of criticism, but that’s status quo for him even when Penn State is winning 11 games. Some of his decisions this year to go for it on 4th down and some offensive play-calling — whether that falls more on him or Kirk Ciarrocca — was questionable at best.
But what Franklin and his staff did keeping this team motivated after a disastrous start may be the best coaching feat of his career. The fact that players were smiling and dancing in an otherwise meaningless game against Illinois shows that the team still loved being with one another and at least never displayed in-fighting to the public. Penn State was one of only two Big Ten teams to play all 9 games, which is remarkable considering the lack of flexibility and stringent COVID-19 protocols the league enacted.
It definitely wasn’t the type of year we expected from Sean Clifford. His play matched that of his team. He was inconsistent and turnover-prone to start the year, but turned game manager down the stretch, cutting down on mistakes and being a leader behind the scenes to keep the Lions from coming unglued. In sort of a stunning development, Clifford finished the year as the Big Ten’s leader in pass completions, yards, touchdowns and interceptions.
Nothing about Will Levis’ style of play is sexy, but you can’t argue with the effectiveness of the Falcon package. When Penn State needed 1-2 yards to pick up a 1st down or touchdown, Levis delivered with a stunning consistency that defied the simplicity of the play call. A lack of confidence from the coaches in calling pass plays for him is a bit alarming with an eye for what life after Clifford will be like, but that’s an issue for another season and one that can potentially be resolved in the transfer portal.
Running game: B
Considering Penn State was down to just its 4th- and 5th-string running backs for 3 of its last 5 games, the Lions’ running game was far better than what most programs around the country would have produced had they been as depleted at the position.
The aforementioned Levis package was a nice addition for short-yardage situations, and Clifford is a good enough runner that defenses have to respect the threat of him tearing off a 20-yard gain. Penn State finished 5th in the league at 174.3 yards a game, but had over 240 yards rushing in 3 of the last 4 games.
The biggest question heading into the season turned out to be the offense’s greatest strength, even while losing All-American Pat Freiermuth for much of the season. Jahan Dotson may have only received Third Team All-Big Ten honors, but he played so well that 2020 will in all likelihood be his final season in Happy Valley. Dotson led the conference in receiving yards (884), was tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns (8) and finished 2nd with 52 receptions.
If Dotson does in fact leave, the receiver position outside of Parker Washington will be another huge question heading into next year, but Penn State’s pair of freshman tight ends Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson really came on nicely down the stretch and may just be the next in line of what is now a tight-end pipeline for the NFL.
Offensive line: C-
This was definitely the leader of underperforming units on the offense. 2020 was supposed to be the season in which Penn State finally had one of the better and deepest offensive lines in the conference, but instead it really struggled. Penn State allowed 7 more sacks than any other team in the Big Ten, and only Maryland allowed more on a per-game basis. Some of the struggles can definitely be pushed on the running back attrition and Clifford holding onto the ball too long, but this line should have been better.
Passing defense: C+
The secondary was one of the most inconsistent in-game performers. One series it would look like a high school defense allowing Rakim Jarrett or Chris Olave to score 50-yard touchdowns virtually untouched, and the next it would play lockdown defense and render a team one-dimensional. With Penn State’s best corner Tariq Castro-Fields only playing 3 games, the young defensive backs such as Joey Porter Jr., Keaton Ellis and Daequan Hardy played really well given their lack of experience, but there were far too many explosive plays. Penn State’s pass rush was good, but not quite at the level many anticipated it to be with Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney.
Run defense: B-
It wasn’t quite the dominant run-stopping group of seasons past, but it was still solid enough to not be an area of concern. Penn State held 3 opponents to fewer than 85 yards rushing and only surrendered more than 200 yards on the ground to Ohio State. Penn State finished 5th in the conference allowing 3.67 yards per carry.
Overall GPA: 2.6
A 2.6 won’t typically get the job done in Happy Valley, but given that Penn State was trending toward flunking out of 2020 halfway through the season, a strong finish merits a gold star on this report card. Through all of Penn State’s flaws — and there were many — the Lions also showed some real bright flashes from talent that will be returning to a (hopefully) normal 2021 season. Penn State may be a real problem for opposing teams next season.