Penn State football: Reassessing the Nittany Lions after a 3-0 start
It’s a good time to have Villanova on deck.
After No. 10 Penn State’s dramatic 28-20 victory over No. 22 Auburn on a White Out Saturday night in State College, Nittany Nation needs to catch its breath — and access the situation.
How special might this team be? Can it make the CFP?
Let’s take stock:
Should we revise preseason expectations?
In my best-case and worst-case scenarios, I had the Lions in the College Football Playoff for the first time on the top end and a complete disaster 4-8 campaign on the bottom. Needless to say, I’m no longer worried about 4-8.
In fact, I can make a credible case that Penn State is the best team in the Big Ten. The Lions looked very similar to No. 5 Iowa going into the weekend: stout defense, ball-protecting offense and game-manager quarterback. But then Sean Clifford went 28-of-32 for 280 yards and 2 TDs against Auburn, and new OC Mike Yurcich threw in so many new wrinkles it’s hard to count them all.
So when the Lions meet the Hawkeyes in Iowa City 3 weeks from now, I’ll take Yurcich and Clifford over the terribly bland, Spencer Petras-led Iowa offense — all other things being equal. And all other things are essentially equal. Ohio State and those 2 schools in Michigan might be bigger worries before it’s all said and done, but more on that later.
Who has stepped up?
Basically, everyone on Brent Pry’s defense has stepped up. Jaquan Brisker leads a dynamic secondary. Jesse Luketa is delivering big time in his hybrid DE-LB role. Ellis Brooks anchors the center of the defense, and fellow LB Brandon Smith has gotten better game to game and leads the team in tackles. Transfer Arnold Ebiketie continues to look like the best thing to ever come out of Temple, wreaking way more havoc than his stats indicate.
On offense, Jahan Dotson has already posted a 100-yard receiving game (102 vs. Wisconsin) and a 10-catch game (Auburn). And last night he even competed a pass. Parker Washington has been consistent as the No. 2 receiver, with 18 catches for 153 yards. Sean Clifford has only 1 turnover, has thrown for at least 230 yards in each game, and has bumped his completion percentage up to 71.3 after Saturday’s performance. He’s also the team’s second-leading rusher.
Jordan Stout is 100 percent for touchbacks on kickoffs and has averaged 50-plus yards on punts in every game. The place-kicking is coming around after the shaky start vs. Wisconsin. He’s flipping the field and protecting the defense, and that’s huge.
What are the biggest worries?
Penn State does not win in the trenches, it survives.
Against Wisconsin and Auburn, the Lions’ defense had to make 2 late stands in the closing minutes because the offense couldn’t kill clock. Saturday night, Penn State’s first drive ended on downs when Clifford couldn’t get 1 yard on a sneak. The line gets no push in short yardage situations. On its final TD drive Saturday, PSU turned a 1st-and-goal from the 1 into a 3rd-and-3 before Noah Cain found room up the middle from a spread formation.
Cain has had to work for his yards; he’s averaged less than 3 yards per rush over the past 2 games while getting the bulk of the carries.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions do not get enough push up the middle to collapse the pocket, and thus they have only 3 sacks on the season — after none against Auburn. The ranked opponents PSU has beaten have each had 100-yard rushers, with many of the carries of the straight-ahead variety.
Maybe PSU can get by with primarily pass-blocking O-linemen and bend-don’t-break defense, as long as Clifford stays healthy. As it was entering the season, that’s the program’s biggest worry. Ta’Quan Roberson would face a major learning curve if forced to step in, even in his third year in the program.
Is Yurcich going to work out?
The Lions have come a long way since that 43-yard first half against Wisconsin, haven’t they? Against Auburn, we saw Dotson throw a pass and third tight end Tyler Warren line up twice as a wildcat QB. We saw top tight end Brenton Strange finally get seriously involved in the passing game, catching 4 balls for 71 yards and a touchdown. We saw Clifford under center a few times, and also split out wide when Warren took his 2 snaps.
Clifford had a lot of open options, and he took advantage, working the edges and the seams to go 12-for-12 in the second half. The 3rd-year starter played a great game; Yurcich helped make it possible.
The new wrinkles induced flashbacks to the 2016-17 offenses under Joe Moorhead. Now, if Yurcich can just come up with a power-running, clock-killing package that works, even the crotchety fans might embrace him.
Is James Franklin making the grade?
Well, let’s see. The transfers Penn State brought in have filled roster trouble spots admirably. Ebiketie stands out at DE, but DT Derrick Tangelo (Duke) and OG Eric Wilson (Harvard) and filling key roles, too. RB John Lovett (Baylor) got into the mix in crunch time against Auburn. As of now, Penn State has the No. 1 recruiting class for 2022. Yurcich is starting to look like a pretty good hire.
So, yeah, Franklin is doing all right. Among coaches, his people skills are off the charts. The national media love him. The ESPN folk gush over Penn State every time they bring GameDay to campus. He’s good at this, and it does sell seats and it does sell recruits on Penn State. There also seems to be genuine buy-in from the players this year. The program has a very positive vibe.
For my taste, I like that he goes for it on fourth down, even though so far the Lions are 0-3 this year. They’ve all been reasonable gambles based on field position. And who doesn’t want to see 320-pound PJ Mustipher trying to rumble through the line on a fake punt?
My hunch is that Franklin, already in his 8th year, will stick around for the long haul. But if he does skip town for USC or elsewhere, it won’t come until this season is done. So enjoy 2021, and know that he’s made this one heck of a desirable job for the next guy, whenever that day comes.
How will it look entering November?
I got the Lions going into Kinnick and taking down the Hawkeyes in a battle of unbeatens, and thus I have them at 7-0 heading to the Horseshoe on Oct. 30 to take on Ohio State.
They’ll certainly have a shot against the defensively challenged Buckeyes, and part of me wants to go farther out on this limb and pick Penn State. But truth is, Ohio State is so loaded with offensive weapons I’m afraid the Buckeyes will outscore the Lions.
I’m reserving the right to come back and reassess — again — in, say, 3 weeks. But for now, I’m saying Penn State will be 7-1 entering November, when they’ll face what suddenly looks like a B1G East gauntlet: Maryland, Michigan, Rutgers and Michigan State — all 3-0 along with the Lions.