Offensive line is still a work in progress
Through the first three games of the season Penn State had struggled to run the ball with most of those struggles coming against Wisconsin and Auburn. Struggling to run the ball against the Badgers and Tigers is understandable. After all, those are two of the best front 7s in the FBS and possibly the two best Penn State will face this season.
No offense toward Villanova but the Wildcat front 7 is not one that should be able to negate the Nittany Lion rushing attack. Despite this, for most of the day on Saturday running lanes were few and far between for Penn State running backs.
On a 3rd & 2 in the first quarter John Lovett struggled to gain a yard, Penn State then went for it on 4th & 1 where they only converted due to a strong second effort from Noah Cain. In the second quarter Penn State had 1st and goal at the 9. After Keyvone Lee slipped and fell trying to make a cut on 1st down Mike Yurcich completely abandoned the run and threw twice before Jordan Stout was summoned for a field goal attempt.
There was a 3rd & 2 in the second quarter where Lovett was dropped for a loss of a yard on a play that never had a chance. Then on the 4th down try and completing to Brenton Strange was negated by a Rasheed Walker holding. Penn State also had a running play go nowhere on a 3rd and 2 early in the 4th quarter.
As the first half went on the pass blocking began to struggle more and more. Clifford went from having clean pockets and time to throw to being forced to move around and rush throws, which undoubtedly contributed to plays where he had open check down options and did not see them.
Penn State ran the ball 34 times for 80 which comes out to a woeful 2.4 yards per carry. That would be a bad number against any team. Against a FCS defense? Inexcusable. Phil Trautwein and company must fix this offensive line and in turn the rushing game ASAP.
Sticking with the running game...
Let’s see more of John Lovett
By far the most successful Penn State running back on Saturday was John Lovett. While Noah Cain may still be the most talented back on Penn State’s roster, Lovett’s skill set is the one that is best suited to run behind an offensive line that is struggling to consistently open up holes and running lanes.
Lovett ran for 45 yards on 11 caries in the victor. While that’s just 4.1 yards per carry, compared to the rest of the Penn State rushing attack that seems like a god send. What made this possible is that Lovett is the type of back that can find success behind a struggling offensive line. Lovett has a better burst than any other back on the roster and has the ability to be shifty in the open field that the other backs do not have.
Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee are both fine running backs. However, for both of those backs their strength is their ability to be power backs. With an offensive line that is struggling to block you need a running back that can go off tackle, make defenders miss and then turn on the burners, that is Lovett.
The big plays are back
When the Nittany Lions have been at their best during the James Franklin Era big plays have been a staple of the offense. After a concerning lack of big plays in 2020 the big plays are back for the Nittany Lions.
Chunk plays by the likes of Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, KJ Hamler, Pat Freiermuth and Journey Brown were staples of 11 win teams in 2016, 2017 and 2019. This season the Nittany Lions have been getting these plays from the likes of Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, John Lovett, Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson.
Saturday afternoon the Nittany Lion offense had 7 plays that went for at least 25 yards and 4 that went for 50+ yards. This included a trio of touchdowns that went for 25+ yards, two of which covered 50+.
Big plays played a huge role in Penn State’s victories over Wisconsin and Auburn. They certainly played a big role again on Saturday afternoon. Hitting five or six chunk plays like this per game can also help to offset a struggling rushing attack.
Let’s talk turnovers
Ji’Ayir Brown intercepted a Daniel Smith pass on Villanova’s first possession of the second half. This gave the Nittany Lions a turnover in 10 consecutive games, the second longest active streak in the FBS, and ran their turnover margin on the season to +7. That said, the opportunity was there for more.
Brown had an opening quarter interception negated by a roughing the passer penalty which led to a Villanova field goal. Later in the half Johny Dixon dropped what would have been an easy pick-6, marking the second consecutive week in which the Nittany Lions dropped an easy pick-6. Daequan Hardy just barely missed jumping a route for an interception on Saturday as well.
Thankfully the missed opportunities by the Nittany Lion defense, in large part due to how well they have played, have not hurt them this season. Against the likes of Iowa or Ohio State it could come back to bite them, though. Moving forward Brent Pry’s unit needs to pounce on these opportunities.