This past weekend, your Penn State Nittany Lions, ranked number 7 in the country, defeated the Michigan Wolverines, ranked number 16, by a score of 28-21.
When the Lions raced out to a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter, I thought the rout was on. Michigan had gotten down by a large margin just once before - against Wisconsin - and folded like a house of cards.
Instead, the Wolverines fought and clawed their way back into the game, coming within a dropped pass on 4th and goal at the 3 yard line with just over 2 minutes left in the game of tying it up.
A big reason for this is that - yet again - the offense sputtered for the better part of 40 minutes after going up 21-0. And a big reason for THAT - to my completely untrained eye mind you - is that the WR-X position is being ignored.
Sean Clifford is our quarterback, and I have literally zero doubts that he’ll be one of the best to don the blue and white before heading out.
That being said, an area of his game that could use some improvement is in his progressions. On many plays, it seems like he doesn’t get past his second read before tucking and running.
Now, that’s normally not a bad thing when read #1 is KJ Hamler, and read #2 is Pat Freiermuth. Those are some damn good players to be looking for after the ball is snapped.
But there’s another player you may have heard of, running out of the WR-X position, that is being almost completely ignored as a result of Clifford’s woobies. That would be Justin Shorter, the former 5-star recruit, ranked the number 1 wide receiver in his class.
Shorter, for those that are unaware, stands 6-foot-4 and weighs in at 235 pounds. What’s more, he runs a 40-yard dash in the 4.4-second range.
So here you have a physical specimen who can blow the top off of a defense, who can go up and make the jump ball as he’s both taller and heavier than the cornerbacks covering him - and who is being completely ignored.
In doing so, half of the field is being eliminated from the field of play. Against mediocre defenses, it doesn’t really matter, because the other players can quite easily handle the opponent.
But against quality defenses, the Lions need to use every possible weapon they have, and right now, they’re not doing that.
Forgive me for being salty the Monday morning after a huge, top 25 win. I’ll dig into it a bit more later this week in Midweek Musings, but while I don’t expect the 2019 Penn State football team to be a playoff contender - nor is that my expectation in any given year as making the playoffs is tough - this Jekyll and Hyde stuff is extremely frustrating to watch.
When this offense is Jekyll, it can literally compete with anyone in the country.
When this offense is Hyde, it’s a top 25 team, but nowhere near deserving of top 10 in the country.
The hope is that after Michigan State, the Lions use their second bye week to do some final adjustments on offense before beginning the final month of the season. After struggling against Pitt in week 3, the Lions put in work on their first bye week, and then demolished Maryland 59-0.
If Clifford can either learn to keep going through his progressions and look for Shorter OR if Shorter can instead be moved up the progression order on some plays, and the ball gets passed around a bit more, this team can legitimately become a threat for both Ohio State and the playoffs.
And don’t get me wrong - KJ Hamler is electric, and feeding him the ball is a good idea in its own right. But I can’t in good faith say that Hamler should be the only focal point of the team. He’s fast, and lightning quick in a phone booth, and has been used to great effect in the passing game, the rushing game, and as a decoy.
But not unlike players from years past, grinding one player down through overuse over the course of the season does not bode well as we move into November. Get KJ his touches, but distribute the ball, lest Hamler be mushed into infant baby paste by the end of the season.
As I said in the Michigan preview, I am in wait and see mode for the offense. Midway through the second quarter, I saw it. After the clock struck zero, I’m back to waiting.
Here’s hoping I don’t have to wait much longer.