The worst should be over as Penn State motors through growing pains
With the exception of Penn State’s box score a week ago, numbers never lie.
Penn State was soundly beaten across the board by Ohio State in nearly every facet of the game, and Justin Fields is even more incredible than the Heisman-worthy candidate was billed to be.
But for every reason for doubt the Nittany Lions may have provided about their season’s trajectory in the first half — particularly the 4 yards of offense in the second quarter — the second half of Penn State’s fourth straight loss to the Buckeyes should have provided seeds of optimism as the offense continues to grow under Kirk Ciarrocca and the defense improves with its normal starters.
Considering Penn State spotted Ohio State the first 14 points of the game and laid a complete egg in the second quarter, a 13-point loss isn’t all that much to hang your head over.
Penn State was outgained 280 yards to 75 in the first half. Sean Clifford had just 2 completions and, when accounting for sacks, had 16 carries for 0 yards. The Nittany Lions were still committing too many careless penalties that extended the few Ohio State drives that stalled out, and there was questionable play-calling on third and fourth downs. Indiana déjà vu.
It was clear that Ciarrocca wasn’t yet comfortable in letting Clifford air it out with his receivers and instead found it most prudent to continually run the QB into the heart of the Buckeyes’ behemoth defensive line.
It wasn’t until the second half when the offense finally dialed up more passing plays that Clifford had any success. Five straight completions on the first drive of the half was the best Penn State had looked on offense all season. A drive punctuated with a 14-yard touchdown reception from Jahan Dotson foreshadowed what was ahead for the junior wideout and answered the question of which player would emerge as Penn State’s dynamic playmaker.
Dotson finished with 8 catches for 144 yards and 3 touchdowns and announced his name to the world outside of Happy Valley with a pair of remarkable catches against Shaun Wade, one of the better coverage corners in the country.
WHAT DID JAHAN DOTSON JUST DO? 😱
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 1, 2020
Dotson’s 144 yards were the most by a Penn State receiver since Chris Godwin had 187 against USC in the Rose Bowl in 2017.
While the run game continued to be all but irrelevant — Devyn Ford was the only Penn State running back to get a carry — Clifford continued to build on his success with Dotson and Parker Washington. It may just be as simple as teams game-planning to stop Pat Freiermuth, but the tight end has yet to be much of a factor in either game.
With Clifford and Dotson clicking, the offense actually outgained Ohio State 250-246 in the second half.
Penn State’s defense also played markedly better in the second half after Jesse Luketa finished serving his suspension for a targeting call against Indiana. Luketa finished with 8 tackles, just 1 off the team lead, despite missing half of the game.
The Nittany Lions only got to Fields twice, but he faced substantially more pressure in the second half. Brandon Smith, who finally made his first tackle of the season in the second quarter, had a brutal hit on the Buckeyes QB that sent every coach on the Ohio State sideline into a panic.
When your QB gets sacked pic.twitter.com/ShWcS1BM1i
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) November 1, 2020
Between the offense finally moving the ball and the defense settling in after the first two series, Penn State actually outscored Ohio State for the final 53:39.
In the end, Penn State isn’t quite as good as many had anticipated prior to the season, but it also isn’t as bad as an 0-2 record for the first time since 2012 may suggest. With games against Maryland and Nebraska in the coming weeks, Penn State should be back at .500 and right in the mix of a now muddled Big Ten East following losses by Michigan and Rutgers.
It’s clear that Fields and Ohio State are the cream of the crop and still leaps ahead of Penn State, but the Halloween showdown answered some questions about this Nittany Lions offense as the season turns the corner toward a much more manageable schedule. Penn State may have played the best two teams in the conference already, so it’s full steam ahead as the Nittany Lions work through growing pains and look to halt the Maryland momentum in Week 3.