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7 Key Takeaways From Penn State’s 16-10 Season Opening Win Over Wisconsin

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That game was fun but also not fun.

Penn State v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Penn State surely didn’t make it easy on Saturday afternoon in Madison but they ended up getting the job done. The No. 19 Nittany Lions took down the No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers 16-10 behind a big second-half effort from the offense and a tremendous game from Brent Pry’s defense.

The Penn State defense is legit:

Saturday’s defensive performance was arguably the best of the James Franklin/Brent Pry era. What a terrific gameplan that Pry drew up for this one and the execution from the players on the field was terrific as well. It was simple, they were going to allow the Badgers to do everything they wanted between the 20s especially when it came to running the ball. But if they were going to lose, they were going to force Wisconsin’s second-year starter Graham Mertz to beat them.

Narrator: Mertz did not beat them.

The secondary was just outstanding. Simply outstanding. Mertz was 22-for-37 in the game for just 185-yards, an average of just five yards per attempt. When it came down late in the game and the only way Wisconsin was going to be able to score was through the air, Mertz was picked off twice. The first on just an outstanding interception from Jaquan Brisker, who battled injuries throughout the game but when on the field was the Nittany Lions best player. The second interception was on the final play of the game when fellow Lackawanna College alum Ja’yir Brown made the game-sealing pick on a terribly forced pass from Mertz. Though he didn't have many options if he wanted to win the game.

Either way, while the Penn State defense did bend quite a bit on Saturday, they only broke once, on Wisconsin’s second drive of the second half to tie the game at 7-7. Outside of that, when they had their backs to the wall, the defense took their game to another level, closing open holes, playing quality coverage, and taking care of all the small things. It was a gritty performance from the defense.

The Offense: A Tale of Two Halves

While Penn State’s defense was great throughout the game, the offense, on the other hand, was a tale of two halves. In the first half, it was one of the worst offensive performances you may ever see out of a Penn State offense. They totaled less than 50 total yards, and Sean Clifford was missing some throws pretty badly.

The second half, however, was a much better product out of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and company. The Nittany Lions seemed to make some key adjustments at halftime and saw them immediately pay off in the second half. On their first drive of the second half, Penn State moved swiftly down the field before Sean Clifford found All-American candidate Jahan Dotson for a 49-yard touchdown. Clifford was much better in the second half, Passing for 200-yards in the final 30 minutes of the game after totaling just 47 in the first half.

He wasn’t perfect but he was good enough on this Saturday in September. The biggest takeaway from Clifford’s performance was simply that he didn’t turn the ball over. After having the most turnovers in the Big Ten last season, he had zero today.

Also worth noting about the second half and in particular the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions were able to find a way to run the ball. After managing -2 yards through three quarters, they totaled 52-yards in the fourth quarter. It’s not much but in the circumstances of the game at the time, it was a huge boost for the Nittany Lions offense. Noah Cain was used sparingly in the first three quarters but was the primary ball carrier in the fourth quarter, ultimately ending up with eight carries for 48-yards and a touchdown.

The offensive line will have to improve going forward but in the fourth quarter, they seemed to be finding their stride. Perhaps this is a sign to come for the upcoming weeks. The jury is still out on what Penn State’s offense can ultimately be, but the Wisconsin front seven will be one of the best they face all season which severely limited their gains on the ground. Will the offense be able to find their rhythm and tempo quicker in the upcoming weeks against lesser front sevens? We’ll have to wait and see.

Jordan Stout was the Nittany Lions best and worst special teams player

That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write but that’s exactly what happened. As a punter on Saturday, Jordan Stout was great, seven punts for 377-yards including one punt dropped inside the 20. He flipped field position all day and was a big weapon for the Nittany Lions and helped out the defense greatly.

However, his placekicking left a lot to be desired. He missed a 23-yard chip shot in the game as well as an extra point though a bad hold may have played a part in that miss. Either way, you have to make both those kicks and Stout is lucky that Wisconsin wasn’t good enough offensively on Saturday to take advantage of those two miscues. It’s worth noting that Jake Pinegar was expected to be the kicker for field goals 40-yards and in. He did end up making the trip per reports but did not play on Saturday.

Those are the major takeaways I wanted to discuss the three facets of the game but some quick thoughts here;

Ellis Brooks - Today was a coming-out party for Ellis Brooks, he was great throughout the game and didn’t deserve to be ejected late in the fourth quarter for targeting. What an asinine rule. He’ll be out for the first half of Ball State next week.

The Refs were horrible: Penn State won Saturday’s games despite the refs, that’s for sure. From the horrendous kick-catch interference calls to missing tons of obvious holds on Wisconsin, it was just a horrendously called game by the refs. I’m sure they missed quite a few penalties on Penn State as well but some calls were just appalling.

Graham Mertz: Mertz was heralded as the quarterback who could take Wisconsin to the next level but it feels that he is just a clone of every Wisconsin quarterback besides Russell Wilson. He has the tools and talent but he definitely still has a lot of growth and development to go. He reminds me a lot of Sean Clifford actually, both struggle when under pressure and force some bad throws while missing some really easy ones as well. I’ll be interested to see how he plays the rest of the season.

I’m so glad football is back... It’s that simple, I’m so glad this wonderful, wonderful sport is back. What a great way to start the season.