Penn State football: Team MVPs and other superlatives for the 2021 season
Penn State had a season of extremes. There was some brutally bad play, some excruciating losses. The high points seem long ago, as most of them came 2 months or more ago. But the key players who made the 5-0 start and No. 4 ranking in the AP poll possible played to the final whistle of Saturday’s 30-27 loss to Michigan State. They put in season-long efforts worthy of acknowledgement. So here goes:
Team MVP: Sean Clifford
Taking “valuable” in its most straight-forward sense, Penn State’s 3rd-year starting QB has to be the pick here. For most of the season, the team had no viable backup option, a fact that became painfully obvious in the loss to Iowa.
Battling through injuries and illness, the 23-year-old started every week and played every significant snap outside of 2 games, producing solid numbers. He finished with 2,912 passing yards, 20 TDs and 6 INTs — incredibly good numbers given that Penn State gave up a league-high 32 sacks, with Clifford the victim on all but a few. And when he was out or limited, the team struggled mightily.
Offensive MVP: Jahan Dotson
With a bowl game remaining, should he chose to play in it, the senior WR already has produced the second-best receiving season in program history, with 1,182 yards and 12 receiving TDs on 91 catches. His 240-yard game vs. Maryland set a PSU record, as did his 12th 100-yard career outing in the season finale.
With great hands, great route-running and improved strength, the 5-11, 184-pound Dotson has made himself into a first-round NFL Draft pick according to multiple experts.
Defensive MVP: Ji’Ayir Brown
The senior safeties, former JUCO teammates at Lackawanna, led this defense, with Brown excelling even more than team captain Jaquan Brisker. The 5-11, 205-pound Brown led the team in interceptions with 4, returning them for 128 combined yards and 1 TD. He forced 1 fumble and recovered 2.
And, like Brisker, he was a beast in run support, battling through linemen and tight ends to take down backs bigger than himself. One of the surer and stronger tacklers for the Lions, Brown produced a team-high 56 solo stops and 67 total, third on the defense behind LBs Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith. It was a monster breakout season for Brown, who made only 6 tackles in 2020.
True Freshman of the Year: Christian Veilleux
Subbing in early against Rutgers for a flu-ridden Sean Clifford, the 6-4, 202-pound Canadian showed poise and skills in his only game action since his 2019 high school season. He completed 15 of 24 passes for 235 yards and 3 TDs, and also rushed 10 times for 36 yards.
The performance left fans wondering what might have happened had the 19-year-old been deemed ready for the college stage against Iowa and/or Illinois to spell a banged-up Clifford.
Transfer of the Year: Arnold Ebiketie
Taking the lead role at defensive end for the injured Adissa Isaac, the 6-3, 256-pound Temple transfer wreaked havoc from his first play as a Nittany Lion. He racked up team-highs with 18 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks and 7 QB hurries as pretty much the lone disruptive force in an otherwise bend-don’t-break defense.
He also forced 2 fumbles and blocked 2 kicks, including one that preserved a shutout against Indiana. His NFL audition in State College really couldn’t have gone much better.
Most Improved Player: Ellis Brooks
The middle linebacker finished the regular season with 100 tackles, one of only 4 players in the Big Ten to reach the century mark so far this season. That’s 42 more than he had last year, and the 6-1, 240-pound senior did his best work in Penn State’s toughest games. He set the tone with a career-high 11 stops in the opener vs. Wisconsin, then improved his personal best with 14 tackles vs. Iowa and then 16 vs. Michigan.
Biggest surprise: Jordan Stout
The surprise was two-fold: that he took over all kicking duties, and that he improved in kicking off and especially in punting. His ability to flip field position made a huge difference in Penn State’s 5-0 start. He led the nation in kickoff touchback percentage going into the weekend, and his punting average (46.5 yards) is a 5-yard per boot improvement over a season ago.
He tried every FG and PAT attempt until former short-kick guy Jake Pinegar hit the final PAT against Michigan State. Stout proved a bit erratic as the full-time kicker, going 16-of-23 on field goals and missing 2 PATs.
Play of the Year: Brisker INT vs. Wisconsin
Late in the opener at Wisconsin, with Penn State clinging to a 16-10 lead, the senior safety made use of his skills and smarts for a victory-preserving interception. Based on film study and observations from the sideline when he was out of the game earlier, Brisker perfectly read Graham Mertz’s pass and jumped in front of tight end Jake Ferguson at the goal line.
“I knew they loved 84 (Ferguson) on the goal line, especially when I was on the bike watching from the sideline. I knew they wanted to go to 84. I just … waited for the quarterback to throw it and I attacked the ball.”
That play, plus another INT by Ji’Ayir Brown a couple minutes later, got Penn State out of Madison with a victory that initiated a 5-game winning streak.
Win of the Year: 28-20 vs. Auburn
In front of 109,958 fans in the best kind of White Out conditions, Penn State put on a show on the national stage. Against a ranked SEC foe, the Nittany Lions put together their most complete game of the season, proving worthy of the College GameDay attention.
Sean Clifford went 28-for-32 for 280 yards, and new OC Mike Yurcich worked in special-package runs by TE Tyler Warren, a completed pass by star wideout Jahan Dotson and some well-schemed plays like the ones below.
The defense made a key red-zone stop while shutting out the Tigers in the fourth quarter, and Penn State rode the feel-good vibes for another 3 weeks before the season began to unravel at Iowa.