Penn State's course correction continues with strong finish vs. Michigan State
I’m not sure how much Penn State’s modest three-game winning streak counts for. But it counts for something.
The course correction that continued in Saturday’s 39-24 victory over Michigan State proves a number of things about James Franklin’s program.
Saturday’s success at Beaver Stadium means the headlines won’t focus on a winless-at-home season, which would have been Penn State’s first since 1918, 102 years and one major pandemic ago.
It speaks of a team that has found its way back from a disastrous 0-5 start, one that didn’t quit. One that has discovered a style of play that works if you work it. Yep, this is a team in recovery, one day at a time. And the Lions have come a long way already.
Three weeks ago, some analysts/pundits were ranking Penn State the worst team in the Big Ten, and those with slightly less dramatic personalities still had the Lions in the bottom half of the league. It was a brutal fall for a team ranked No. 7 in the first iteration of the preseason AP Top 25.
I don’t want to make too much of victories over Michigan, Rutgers and MSU — bad teams all. But I will point that the Spartans beat B1G West champ Northwestern just 2 weeks ago. The Big Ten is filled with mediocre, schizophrenic teams. A month ago I was convinced all but 2 or 3 of them were better than Penn State. Today, I’m not sure Penn State isn’t better than all but 2 or 3 of them.
Within this season, Penn State has gone back to go forward. Whether that will apply season-over-season remains to be seen. But it’s certainly possible.
Penn State earned the big plays that enabled it to outscore the Spartans 29-3 in Saturday’s second half. It earned them by pounding away with power running and short passes (freshman TE Brenton Strange looked great early) until, finally, the opposing defense got sucked in. On his 49-yard touchdown reception, Parker Washington had time to pause and settle under a less-than-perfect toss from passing-QB Sean Clifford. Washington had that free space because the man who was supposed to guard him lost track of his assignment while worrying about the line of scrimmage.
Penn State’s persistence running the ball (38 rushes vs. 30 pass attempts) made a difference even though the Lions gained only 119 yards on the ground after averaging better than 250 in its previous victories. Penn State did just enough with runs and short passes to set up a lot of third-and-shorts.
Ah, third-and-short. Enter Will Levis. The Answer. Levis trots onto the field with everyone on the field and all the imaginary fans in the stands knowing he will run. And, with the only deception being that he can chose which gap to run through, he converts. Time and again, he converts. The simple, straight forward approach has succeeded where deep handoffs out of the shotgun have failed more often than not during Franklin’s 7 seasons at PSU.
That approach — a team-high 15 runs by Levis — did, finally, loosen up the defense enough that Levis was given permission to put a couple balls in the air, and he went 3-for-3 for 54 yards. Clifford finished 17-for-27 for 232 yards and 2 TDs, and also led the team in rushing (48 yards on 9 carries) thanks to a 31-yard touchdown romp.
After an inauspicious start, PSU’s 2-QB system is clicking, probably because Clifford and Levis are no longer competing for one job. Their roles are clearly distinct. Clifford is the No. 1 passer and can also run. Levis is a runner who on rare occasions may throw. Neither seems to envy the other his time, as they were seen sharing a laugh after Levis ran for the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
Penn State won time of possession (33:24-26:36) for the 6th time in its 8 games. Like a boxer landing body blows, the Lions are wearing opponents down. Maybe fatigue was a factor for MSU when it allowed Jahan Dotson’s 81-yard punt return touchdown that iced the game.
And Penn State’s own defense, with excellent adjustments and fresh after being on the field only 12:47 of the first half, did a number on first-time starting QB Payton Thorne in the second half. The Lions need to, because Thorne looked like MSU’s next Kirk Cousins in scorching the PSU secondary for 3 TD passes in the second quarter. Bringing more and better pressure, the defense held Thorne to 11-of-26 passing for 123 yards after halftime and finished with 3 sacks.
All in all, Saturday turned out to be another good day for the Nittany Lions in a year that hasn’t had enough of them. What any of it means other than that the Lions get to keep the ugliest trophy in sports for another year, I can’t say. I don’t know if James Franklin and his staff plan to play this way going forward, with 2 QBs and a back-to-basics style.
But the blueprint is there, it’s working, and it’s something build on. That’s a big step up from how things were looking just a few short weeks ago.