1. Wide Receiver Play
One of the biggest question marks coming into the season was if Penn State would have the talent and production in the passing game to really take this offense to the next level. While the offense sputtered for much of the season, most of the blame can’t be put on the wide receivers, who stepped up with breakout seasons.
First and foremost, there was junior Jahan Dotson who finished the year with 52 receptions, 884 yards, and 8 touchdowns over 9 games. If you put those numbers into a 13-game season context, Dotson would have put up (about) 75 receptions for 1,277 yards and 11 touchdowns. I mean, those aren’t Third Team All-Big Ten numbers — those are elite numbers.
Dotson isn’t the biggest player. He’s only 5-foot-11, 182 pounds, and looks more like a baseball player than football player. He isn’t the fastest guy either. Whenever he heads to the NFL Combine (hopefully 2022), he isn’t going to run a sub-4.4 forty. But Dotson understands the intricacies of the position, he gets open, he catches the ball, and he’s slippery as all heck. For an offense that was without Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Pat Freiermuth for most of the season, it needed someone to be the alpha dog, and Dotson was that and then some.
Speaking of players who stepped up, we can’t forget about the true freshman Parker Washington. He’s another guy that won’t blow you away physically, standing only 5-foot-10, 205 pounds. But like Dotson, he has a knack for getting open and making plays. Washington finished his frosh campaign with 36 receptions for 489 yards and 6 touchdowns, which equals out to (about) 52 receptions, 706 yards, and 9 touchdowns in a normal 13-game season. For a true freshman, those are some very welcomed stats.
While Dotson and Washington were far-and-away the most productive receiver options, redshirt freshman tight end Brenton Strange and true freshman wideout KeAndre Lambert-Smith certainly deserves shoutouts. Strange took over for an injured Pat Freiermuth, and ended the season with 17 receptions for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns, which grades out to 25 receptions, 237 yards, and 3 touchdowns — numbers that aren’t too far off from what Freiermuth himself put up as a quasi-starter in 2018.
Meanwhile, Lambert-Smith finished his season with 15 receptions for 138 yards, equaling out to be 22 receptions for 199 yards over 13 games. Those numbers won’t jump off the page, but knowing how raw Lambert-Smith was coming into college, it’s a great sign for the future that he was able to see the field in 2020.
Lastly, new wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield deserves a ton of praise here. Penn State’s wide receiver play was not great in 2018, and left something to be desired in 2019 too, so for Stubblefield to come in during this whacky year of 2020 and to clearly improve the unit is extremely impressive. For the first time since Josh Gattis was here, it feels like this position group is in good hands.
2. Influx Of Youth At Key Positions
I talked about this right after Micah Parsons opted (and before the Big Ten cancelled the season and then postponed the season and then restarted the season), saying that this was going to be a weird year. Of course, I wanted Penn State to win as many games as possible but to act like this was going to be a normal season was off base. With that being the case, I wanted to see more of a focus on getting young players some action in games and situations that they otherwise would not.
With the aforementioned Parsons opting out, Journey Brown being forced to retire, Noah Cain playing just one offensive series, Tariq Castro-Fields playing in just three games, and Pat Freiermuth playing in just four, Penn State’s hand was forced into a youth movement.
- We talked about tight end Brenton Strange above, but the 6-foot-6, 251-pound true freshman Theo Johnson also got way more snaps than anticipated.
- Keyvone Lee stepped up without Journey, Cain, and then eventually Devyn Ford, too. Once the true frosh got the bulk of the carries, he was impressive, running for 345 yards on 70 carries over the last four games of the season.
- Brandon Smith looked more-and-more comfortable as the season went on. He finished 37 tackles 2 sacks, and 8 TFLs — with 5 of those TFLs coming in the final game. Hopefully, he’ll be moved to the Will spot this offseason.
- Caedan Wallace worked his way into a starting gig on the offensive line, while Juice Scruggs flashed all-conference potential down the stretch.
- The entire cornerback unit — Joey Porter Jr., Marquis Wilson, Keaton Ellis, and Daequan Hardy — was comprised of second-year players. Porter Jr. and Ellis specifically had good seasons to build upon.
We’ll see how hard Penn State is hit with NFL Draft declarations (hi Jayson Oweh, Rasheed Walker, Jahan Dotson, and Jaquan Brisker), but for what was supposed to be a veteran heavy team, the Nittany Lions ended the season being extremely young. Hopefully, that bodes well for next season.
I DIDN’T LIKE...
1. Quarterback Play
As I have said time and time again, I am a Sean Clifford guy. But folks, he was not good enough this year. I imagine Cliff would be the first one to tell you that. Yes, he was running a new offense, and yes, the pandemic certainly hindered working out the kinks that comes with a new offense. But the same issue that plagued Cliff in the past — poor footwork, missing high, locking in on his first progression, etc. — reared it’s ugly head again. For a redshirt junior, Cliff should have been better.
Cliff should be commended for his play after regaining the starting job. Penn State went 4-0. Clifford limited the mistakes, throwing just one interception to five touchdowns over the final four games. His completion percentage jumped up to 65.6% — a tremendously respectable number. Hopefully, those are things that will be built upon in a (maybe?) more normal-ish offseason. But this was a big season for Cliff, and under just about any metric, he wasn’t good enough.
2. Knowing What This Season Could Have Been
Following the Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis, things were setting up for a special season in Happy Valley. Pat Freiermuth and a whole bunch of seniors all came back for another season in Happy Valley. Micah Parsons was ready to etch his name into the Mt. Rushmore of linebackers at Penn State. Journey Brown and Noah Cain were set to be the best 1-2 punch duo in the entire country. The Nittany Lions were a consensus Top 10 team with legitimate Top 5 buzz.
Instead, the poopy sandwich that is 2020 was dealt. Spring practice was wiped away. Most of the summer was wiped away. The season, for a period, was wiped away. Parsons opted out. Journey retired. Cain broke his foot on the first series. Freiermuth shoulder almost fell off. I’m not usually a “everything is going against us” guy but EVERYTHING WENT AGAINST US.
I’m proud of this team for not quitting when so many (including the fans) would. I’m proud of this team for finishing 4-0. But man, the 2020 team will always be a “what if...” in Penn State lore. What if Kirk Ciarrocca had a full non-COVID offseason with Clifford? What if Parsons doesn’t opt out? What if Cain doesn’t brea his foot? What if Penn State faced Ohio State in front of 110,000 maniacs who were going to will this program over the Buckeye hump?
I guess we’ll never know.