Tradition Crystal Ball: Predicting every Penn State football game in 2022
Editor’s note: Saturday Tradition’s annual Crystal Ball series continues today with Penn State. We’ll stay with the B1G East all week. Next week, we’ll predict every game for every B1G West team. Previously: Ohio State
The joy was back in Happy Valley last September.
After a nightmare of a COVID season saw Penn State start 0-5 for the first time ever, the Nittany Lions flipped a switch that carried over to 2021. Penn State won its final 4 games in 2020, then started its 2021 campaign on a 5-0 streak that resulted in a No. 4 national ranking.
Nothing about that quick start was easy, either. Penn State had to open the season at Wisconsin, gutting out a 16-10 win. A 28-20 White Out win over Auburn was the most impressive non-conference victory in the entire Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions were rolling.
“Guys got a taste of what being at Penn State is really like when we’re 5-0 and campus is buzzing and people are talking about us,” said senior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher.
But that taste proved fleeting.
In a signature showdown at No. 3 Iowa, Penn State held a 17-7 lead. But Mustipher, the key cog of Penn State’s run defense, went down with a season-ending knee injury. Quarterback Sean Clifford was knocked out of the game shortly thereafter.
“When you have 2 players get hurt, I think it’s difficult. But when you have 2 players that are leaders get hurt, it makes it that much more difficult,” Mustipher said. “This game is a lot about the mental aspect. When you look around the locker room before you take the field and you don’t have the 2 people who have been leading the entire time, it makes it hard. Especially when you have younger guys in the locker room.”
The Hawkeyes rallied for a 23-20 win. Clifford was far too hurt to play effectively the following game, and Illinois rushed for 357 yards in a shocking 9-OT upset at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State’s promising 5-0 start sputtered into a disappointing 7-6 final record capped by an Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas.
“You’ve got to move on, got to be better from it. Gotta grow from it,” Mustipher said. “We’re excited where we’re at now. We put that in the past, and we’re ready to move on.”
About that offensive line …
Penn State is 11-11 over its past 2 seasons, and 106,572 fingers at Beaver Stadium (and maybe some double fingers) point at 1 position: offensive line.
Last season, the Nittany Lions were 13th in the B1G and 117th nationally with 3.21 yards per carry. Penn State’s backs were often eaten alive in the backfield, with the O-line permitting 92 tackles for loss. That too was 13th in the conference while ranking 113th in the country.
For 2 straight seasons, Penn State has been the Big Ten’s worst team at protecting the quarterback, allowing 62 combined sacks in 22 games.
“O-line is the group that we come and talk about every single year, and I tell you this is going to be the year for the next step at that position. I’m not going to do that this year,” James Franklin said at B1G Media Days. “I’m going to let them prove that to you on the field. But I’ve been very, very pleased with that unit and the depth that we have created.”
We shall see about that.
When it comes to Penn State wide receivers, Jahan Dotson joins Allen Robinson and Bobby Engram at the head of the class. Those are the 3 starters for any all-time Nittany Lions roster at the position. So replacing Dotson should be next to impossible.
Yet when you look at Penn State’s returning roster, it’s tough to feel better about any other position group on this team. Maybe the secondary. Both will be among the top 3 units at their position in the B1G this season.
Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley ranked 8th nationally in receiving yardage and 5th in touchdown receptions last season. He’s also roommates with Clifford, which shouldn’t hurt their rapport. Outside of Clifford’s annoyance that Tinsley owns a cat.
“I’m more of a dog guy,” Clifford noted at B1G Media Days.
Sophomores Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith will continue to take steps forward this season. Freshman Kaden Saunders also looks like he’s going to find his way onto the field.
Sophomore tight end Brenton Strange, who had 3 TD catches last year, also looks like he has the makings of an ideal red zone target.
Combined with Clifford’s veteran touch, Penn State’s passing attack will again be in the top 4 of the B1G.
What effect will Manny Diaz have?
Penn State’s biggest offseason change was on defense.
Virginia Tech hired Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry as head coach, so Franklin turned to fired Miami head coach Manny Diaz for the DC vacancy. Diaz filled that role well at Miami for 3 seasons before he was promoted to head coach after Mark Richt’s abrupt retirement.
The Nittany Lions need Diaz to make an immediate impact on the pass rush. Penn State was just 65th in the country in sacks last season, following a 49th-ranked showing in 2020. The Lions were in the top 15 nationally in sacks every season from 2015-19.
Great expectations will be placed on junior Nick Tarburton and Maryland sophomore transfer Chop Robinson to put more pressure on quarterbacks. Junior Adisa Isaac, who missed last season with an injury, will also be in that mix.
If Mustipher is back in full form, Penn State will be stout against the run. And a defensive backfield anchored by cornerback Joey Porter Jr. is going to be a problem for opponents. If the Nittany Lions get to the quarterback, this will be the saltiest defense in the Big Ten East.
Week 1: at Purdue (W)
This Thursday night showdown in Week 1 is the most fun inter-division matchup in the Big Ten this season. Both teams can light up the scoreboard. Neither is particularly adept at running the ball, so this might resemble a vintage Big 12 game. Penn State’s defense will make the difference. Perhaps a late Porter Pick-6?
Week 2: vs. Ohio (W)
I don’t understand why the Bobcats don’t refer to themselves as The Ohio University. Also, Ohio’s last game against a team from Pennsylvania was a loss to FCS Duquesne last year. That doesn’t bode well.
Week 3: at Auburn (L)
Jordan-Hare Stadium will be a madhouse matching the atmosphere at Beaver Stadium last year. Much as the Nittany Lions used their 12th man to make a difference then, the Tigers will use the same energy to pull through late in a close game.
Week 4: vs. Central Michigan (W)
The Nittany Lions snap a 2-game losing streak against teams from Michigan.
Week 5: vs. Northwestern (W)
Scarier than you’d think, as Franklin is 1-2 against Pat Fitzgerald head-to-head. Plus, Penn State’s last home game against an underwhelming team from Illinois was a pretty notable dud. Northwestern will turn most of this game into a rock fight, but Penn State’s talented receivers will break it open late.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: at Michigan (L)
Rolling up to the Big House off of a bye week — right where the Nittany Lions want ’em! Save for one detail. Penn State is 3-6 coming off of an open week under James Franklin.
This is going to be a back-and-forth game, but the crystal ball predicts the home team will get the final at-bat to pick up the win.
Week 8: vs. Minnesota (L)
Minnesota is a team that has surprisingly had Penn State’s number over the years, including when they last met in 2019. The Gophers also had a random 4-game win streak over the Nittany Lions from 1999-2004.
Minnesota has taken 2 of the 3 most recent meetings, with Penn State’s only win being a 29-26 overtime decision in 2016. That team was Franklin’s best, going on to win the Big Ten. And it still needed a last-second field goal in regulation and a Saquon Barkley walk-off touchdown to get past the Gophers.
The Minnesota mojo continues.
Week 9: vs. Ohio State (W)
Just as another promising season seems to be spiraling down the tubes, Penn State delivers a lightning bolt and hands Ohio State its first loss. Last year, the Nittany Lions gave the Buckeyes a spirited battle at the Horseshoe behind a banged-up Sean Clifford.
A healthy Clifford will help pull off the upset in Happy Valley.
Week 10: at Indiana (W)
Every Penn State player who was on the roster in 2020 remembers all too well what happened the last time the Nittany Lions visited Bloomington. They’ll be determined to make sure this game isn’t close enough to be decided on a replay review — though by no means will this be a blowout. Riding high off the Ohio State win, the Nittany Lions will face an early deficit here before taking control in the fourth quarter.
Week 11: vs. Maryland (L)
The road team has won the past 3 games in this series, and the Terrapins are going to run that streak up to 4. This is Maryland’s most loaded team post-Ralph Friedgen. And they’ll be fired up for what is ostensibly their only geographical rival in the Big Ten. (New Jersey doesn’t border Maryland; Rutgers is just the team that came with the Terps.)
Week 12: at Rutgers (W)
Getting up for a late November game in Piscataway seems … difficult. This one figures to be sloppy. The type of game that’s never watched again after film study. But the Nittany Lions will prevail.
Week 13: vs. Michigan State (W)
Good night Land Grant Trophy fans, have sweet dreams of your team winning me tonight pic.twitter.com/fbA2tiyqYA
— Land-Grant Trophy (@LandGrantTrophy) November 27, 2021
Behind the Stanley Cup, it is the most coveted trophy in all of sports*. And the Nittany Lions will be darned if they’re going to let the Spartans win it a second straight year. This feels like a 2-minute drill for Clifford’s career capper.
2022 Projection: 8-4 (6-3), 3rd in B1G East
Penn State fans are in for another roller-coaster season, though the dips and corkscrews of this one will have nothing on its 2 predecessors. It may even feel downright normal.
Much like 2020, this season will end on a high note after some early concerns. The Crystal Ball has the Nittany Lions at a midseason crossroads at 3-3 before rebounding with a 5-1 kick to finish the season. Mustipher and Clifford’s veteran leadership will prevent this team from falling apart.
It will also prove key for what’s ahead. The bulk of Penn State’s talent is in its sophomore and freshman classes, and the incoming recruiting class will potentially top them both. This season is a bridge to Penn State’s future. By 2024, the Nittany Lions should be competing for a spot in the CFP.
Obviously Penn State fans would like for that to happen sooner. But until the Lions show us something positive along the offensive line, the future remains more promising than the present.