Will the real Penn State offense please stand up?
This was not how the season was supposed to start. A Penn State team singing the alma mater in an eerie, empty Beaver Stadium moments after the Nittany Lions sunk to 0-2 for the first time since the shadows of the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2012 with Bill O’Brien at the helm. After 63 consecutive weeks of being ranked in the AP, that streak has come to an end.
Kirk Ciarrocca was expected to usher in a new, exciting offense that could compete with some of the best in the conference. Yet through two weeks, with the exception of a few jaw-dropping snares by Jahan Dotson, Penn State’s offense has been a resounding dud.
For much of the offseason, the one consistent theme that Ciarrocca hammered home was a desire to “strike first and strike fast.” The execution of that mission statement has been a clear swing and miss.
“I have no idea why we keep starting so slow,” Dotson said after Penn State’s 38-25 loss to Ohio State. “We’ve got to fix that in practice. Coach Franklin builds practices so that we start fast. We go competitive right away, everything competitive at the start of practice.”
Penn State has 13 first-half points this year. Three of those were a gift by the Beaver Stadium clock operator. The Nittany Lions have trailed by double-digits at halftime in both games.
Against the Buckeyes, Sean Clifford finished the first half 2-of-7 passing for 29 yards and with 10 rushing yards on 11 attempts. Despite being Penn State’s leading rusher against Indiana, Clifford clearly was not going to replicate that Week 1 success against OSU. That became obvious early on, yet Penn State’s play-callers stubbornly stuck with the approach.
Not until the second half, when Clifford began throwing short and intermediate routes, did the offense have much success. It went from 75 yards in the first half (4 in the second quarter) to 250 yards and 19 points in the final two quarters, scoring on 4 of Penn State’s final 5 possessions.
“For us, offensively, we really struggled in the first half, not being able to run the ball pretty much
the entire game, and not being able to protect Sean,” head coach James Franklin said after the game. “He was getting hit way too much and had people in his face way too much. I thought in the second half we were able to get the ball out of his hand quicker and made some plays on the perimeter which opened up (the field).”
The good news is that Penn State seems to have found its replacement for K.J. Hamler. Dotson recorded his second career 100-yard game and had 4 catches go for at least 20 yards. He looks like a reliable weapon that Clifford can turn to in key situations, a needed complement to TE Pat Freiermuth.
Freshmen Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith also had solid Beaver Stadium debuts, Washington grabbing 4 balls for 73 yards and Lambert-Smith contributing 2 catches. The presence of both underclassmen is even more vital as Cam Sullivan-Brown has been on the field for just one play this season, Penn State’s onside kick against the Buckeyes. Their games should only continue to develop as the season goes on and they gain more chemistry with their QB.
Loved this play design. Fake to the flat, linebackers bite and Parker Washington gets in behind going back across the field. Penn State able to create some separation in the second half. pic.twitter.com/9svwLyCuCg
— Ben Jones (@Ben_Jones88) November 1, 2020
The absence of Journey Brown, Noah Cain and a Penn State running game was only amplified against the Ohio State front seven. Outside of Clifford, only Devyn Ford and Will Levis had carries. Clifford can’t continue to be the Nittany Lions’ best running option if Penn State expects to be multi-dimensional on offense, let alone keep its QB healthy for the remainder of the season.
We saw Ohio State almost completely eliminate the Justin Fields running threat in an effort to keep his jersey as clean as possible, and that is exactly what Penn State needs to do going forward. Sure it helps to have a Chris Olave and a Garrett Wilson, but the Nittany Lions may never discover if they have anything close to those weapons if they continue to neglect the passing game. Clifford is at his best as a pocket passer. Put him in an environment to thrive.
This is supposed to be Penn State’s biggest, meanest, most effective offensive line since scholarship sanctions gutted the position group, but it has surrendered 7 sacks and has failed to open many running lanes. Penn State rushers other than Clifford have just 170 yards this season.
The ol’ two for one… pic.twitter.com/ZwfLGfBbrl
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) November 1, 2020
Penn State could win out against its remaining schedule, but not if the offensive formula remains what the Lions showed against the Hoosiers and the first half against Ohio State. The Nittany Lions’ clear strength is finding ways to get the ball out of Clifford’s hands as quickly as possible and into the hands of Freiermuth and Dotson.
The Nittany Lions are middle of the pack in the conference in just about every offensive metric and are the only team in the Big Ten East without a win. Until Penn State solves its issues on offense, that’s likely where Penn State will finish the season, in a muddled mess miles behind Ohio State.