Penn State football manic Monday: Highs and lows as the No. 11 Lions move ahead to Week 5
PJ Mustipher stands out in the middle of Penn State’s defense. How could he not? He’s huge. Especially compared to the lean, twitchy teammates all around him.
And yet, prior to Saturday’s 33-14 victory over Central Michigan, the 6-4, 320-pound senior captain seemed nearly invisible. Sure, his teammates and new defensive coordinator Manny Diaz know he brings value beyond the stat sheet and the highlight videos. But still … he entered the game with 3 tackles and 1 QB hurry.
Against a Chippewas offense with strength up the middle, Mustipher made a team-high 6 stops as Penn State held the visitors to 88 rushing yards on 3.8 per carry.
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Like an enforcer in hockey, Mustipher provides toughness and protection for his smaller, faster, more highly skilled teammates. He’s usually the only true big man on the field for Diaz’s speed-based defense. Hakeem Beamon, the other starting defensive tackle on Penn State’s 4-man front, goes 6-3, 264 and showed his agility with a batted, mid-rush pass-breakup Saturday. The Lions get progressively lighter, if no less tenacious, as one scans the roster for DEs, linebackers and then DBs. Mustipher is the beef.
Like an enforcer in hockey, Mustipher will be needed more in some games than others. Not every game will present an ideal matchup for his type of work.
But it was nice to see him — starting for the 4th time since a tough leg injury sidelined him for the final 7 games of 2021 — make a clearly noticeable impact for the first time in almost a year. His value often goes unnoticed until he’s gone, like last season when Penn State limped home at 2-6 after Mustipher was lost for the season in Week 6 against Iowa.
Welcome back, PJ.
That was certainly a high for Penn State’s manic-depressive fan base. There were more positives and also a bunch of worries in the fallout from the team’s 4th straight win. Here are a few to stew over prior to Saturday afternoon’s meeting with visiting Northwestern (3:30 ET, ESPN).
Low: Shaky legs — place-kicking woes
Jake Pinegar missed a FG try from 38 yards and had a PAT blocked, leaving him 3-for-5 on FGs and 18-of-20 on extra-points. Sander Sahaydak, the freshman long-distance specialist, missed short and wide from 56 yards late in the first half.
Neither the veteran nor the rookie has fans feeling good about any crucial attempts that might arise starting 3 weeks from now, when the Lions face unbeatens Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State in succession.
High: Solid leg — punter Barney Amor
The senior former walk-on spun 1 punt out of bounds at the CMU 3, checked up another at the 6 and had the Chips’ Jordyn Williams staggering underneath a high knuckler to force a game-changing muff — recovered by Curtis Jacobs — early in the third quarter.
Barney Amor for Heisman 😈 pic.twitter.com/IgB5QW9WDW
— Onward State (@OnwardState) September 24, 2022
Amor has been checking up punts inside the 10 all year with ball control a pro golfer would envy.
Barney Amor with a beautiful boot giving Penn State great field position pic.twitter.com/Qwl4fQ7tcr
— Alex Rocco (@AlexRocco13_) September 24, 2022
“The biggest thing for me is just working on anything that isn’t forward spin,” Amor said in a postgame interview. “If I can get the ball to kick in any direction that isn’t into the end zone, that’s my goal.”
Mission accomplished. He estimates his success controlling spin as “70% skill, 30% probably luck.” He’s probably being modest. That’s Amor, eh? Gotta love it.
Low: Not enough Drew Allar
Sean Clifford and Diaz’s defense faltered in the second quarter, allowing CMU to tie the game briefly and delaying backup QB Drew Allar’s entrance until the fourth quarter. That hurts, because the 5-star freshman needs all the snaps he can get. He might be needed to spell an injured, ill or ineffective Clifford in a crucial moment against the best the Big Ten has to offer.
James Franklin hasn’t shied from playing true freshmen over veterans based or merit this season. Nick Singleton, Kaytron Allen, Abdul Carter and Dani Dennis-Sutton have all moved toward the front of the line for playing time at their respective positions. It should be no different at quarterback.
Clifford still deserves to start at this point, but it’s not the easy call it appeared to be at the start of the season. At some point soon, Allar might give the team the best chance to win. That assessment should continue week-to-week, with Clifford getting the benefit of the doubt as long as he keeps winning.
High: Winning the turnover battle
After winning the turnover battle 4-0 for a second straight game, Penn State is a Big Ten-best plus-8. That ranks No. 4 nationally. The offense has lost the ball only once, on Clifford’s pick-6 against Purdue. The defense has 4 interceptions and 5 fumble recoveries.
Low: ‘He’s open! Geez, Clifford’
Clifford took deep shots twice against the Chips when simple dump-off passes to the left flat would have produced guaranteed positive yardage and possibly big plays. He never looked at Kaytron Allen or Nick Singleton on unsuccessful deep heaves to Omari Evans and Parker Washington while the game was tied at 14 in the second quarter.
While I understand wanting to stretch a defense to keep it honest, Penn State could have had its 2 best offensive players 1-on-1 in space. The deep shots did CMU a favor. There was a similar play last week against Auburn. Clifford and OC Mike Yurcich need to look at this, literally and figuratively.
Manic-depressive speed round …
Freshman 5-star DE Dani Dennis-Sutton registered 2 sacks and now has a team-high 3. The d-line collectively now has half of the team’s 12 QB takedowns after registering none through the first 2 games. … When Diaz’s blitzes get picked up, sometimes even PSU’s stout secondary can’t account for every receiver. That was evident on CMU’s consecutive TD drives to tie the game. … Freaky freshman linebacker Abdul Carter posted another 5 tackles, putting him 3rd on the team with 16 despite his early exit for targeting in the opener. … Franklin gave CMU an extra down by accepting a penalty, giving the Chips 3rd-and-goal from the 30 rather than 4th-and-goal from the 20. It nearly burnt the Lions, as they gave up a 25-yard pass play before stopping a 4th-and-goal from the 5. … Big man specialist Gabriel Nwosu (6-6, 268) made his first collegiate tackle while helping cover his opening kickoff.