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44 Random Thoughts About Penn State’s Season-Opening Win Against Wisconsin

What a game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 Penn State at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At High (B1G?) Noon on Saturday, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Wisconsin Badgers engaged in a contest of American football at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions picked up a victory on opening day, 16-10. I have several thoughts, which are set forth randomly below:

  1. What can you realistically take away from the 2020 college football season? The world was essentially on fire, there was little end in sight, and schools were unable to field full teams (or even partially full stadiums) at various points throughout the year.
  2. Case in point – the season started last year for Penn State in late-October, they played only conference opponents, and they elected not to go to a bowl game despite eligibility.
  3. It was awful opening in October with a conference game, and even worse losing it.
  4. #PenixWasShort.
  5. It was awful starting last year 0-5. It was fun to close the year on a four game win streak, including beating Michigan at the Big House. But did we learn anything meaningful about the team or its personnel throughout either of those stretches?
  6. Generally speaking, no. But there may have been one major lesson that appears to have been corrected – at least based on this past weekend’s result.
  7. Saturday looked a lot like the Week 1 we’ve been used to seeing. The sky was clear and the sun was shining, everyone had a beer in their hand and the grill going, and we were ready to put a 30 point drubbing on Akron.
  8. Wait, what the hell are we doing in Madison?
  9. Why is the other team wearing Wisconsin’s uniforms? Why is everyone in the crowd jumping?
  10. Clearly, I woke up in an alternate universe. Opening weekend is for home games, tailgates, and reunions. Legitimately, after the last year, there was no more appropriate time for that. But instead, we had what could plausibly be called the second biggest game of the weekend after Clemson and Georgia.
  11. That’s…horrifying?
  12. Much like Clemson and the Dawgs, this was a rock fight. It was probably always destined to be a rock fight, designed to see how long two fanbases could hold their collective breath in the fourth quarter.
  13. So sure, it’s not unusual for most top 25 teams to be 1-0 after opening weekend, but this…this was very different.
  14. I’ve been more bullish on Sean Clifford than most here, so I’m probably more inclined to take a positive view of the whole of it.
  15. Two specifically come to mind - one to Theo Johnson that would have kept a drive moving and one to Jahan Dotson that would’ve been another long score. On the missed Johnson first down, he apparently also had Parker Washington open and didn’t look his way.
  16. Those are misses than can and should be corrected going forward. The Dotson overthrow in particular is the kind of play that puts a game out of reach, which would have been a huge help here for multiple reasons and would have made his stat line much more impressive.
  17. I know no one is inclined to do this – college football fans appear to be motivated by negative energy – but it’s worth looking at the plays that were made. The two Dotson deep balls (even the one that was thrown a bit short) and the long ball to Keandre Lambert-Smith were the kinds of plays that Wisconsin just doesn’t have the personnel or the scheme to make. Clifford made a smart play to dump the ball off to Noah Cain on a critical third down on the drive that tied the game at 10. He also threw really nice balls on the first series to Dotson and on the second series to Washington.
  18. Penn State did not take advantage, as much as I would have liked, of Clifford’s ability to run the ball. That skill makes him a much better quarterback than if he’s just standing and slinging from the pocket.
  19. Ultimately, this game told the same story we’ve known for two years – Clifford is streaky and you can’t put the game entirely on his shoulders. Without a complimentary running game from Penn State’s deep stable of running backs, there was no offense to speak of, and Clifford is not a one-man scoring machine. He’s effective as one of the cogs in the machine.
  20. As usual, this offense is at peak performance in the hurry-up. Of course, officials need to hustle and be set in order to do that…
  21. Color me unimpressed with the officiating crew from Saturday. I don’t believe either of the two penalties for kick catch interference were actually penalties and, as has been true for two decades, Wisconsin holds on every single play and virtually never gets called.
  22. Obviously, the targeting ejection of Ellis Brooks is the biggest problem. Joel Klatt is right – at some point, you have to take intent into these kinds of calls. Graham Mertz was a runner and Brooks wasn’t head hunting. He mostly hit him with his shoulder and Mertz was totally fine afterwards.
  23. Most penalties by themselves don’t swing games, but that one did. Just because Penn State eventually prevailed doesn’t mean anything. That changed the entire dynamic of a drive that really should have ended in a Wisconsin touchdown. That it did not is a testament to Penn State’s incredible defense combined with some unusual luck.
  24. But really, Penn State’s defense was incredible, and this game was a Brent Pry bend-but-don’t-break masterpiece. Tom Bradley might as well have been calling the shots out there, it was such a classic.
  25. The secondary is as advertised. I’ve been skeptical of the Jaquan Brisker hype, but he came to play in more ways than one. He gutted it out through some discomfort and made big plays when it counted. The drop off when Jonathan Sutherland is out there for more than a few snaps at a time is considerable.
  26. Hard not to love the Ji’Ayir Brown part of the safety equation too. He looked up to the task as Brisker’s backfield mate.
  27. Joey Porter, Jr. had the best pass defense of the day.
  28. Arnold Ebiketie was unbelievable and looks the part of the next great Penn State defensive end. Just incredible, incredible, incredible speed.
  29. James Franklin specifically noted PJ Mustipher’s performance in every post-game media availability, so clearly he was more than solid as well.
  30. This was a prime Ellis Brooks match up and he certainly took advantage of it. I’ll be curious to see how it translates to a spread offense, but he looked like every bit of a LBU throwback against this Wisconsin front.
  31. Graham Mertz is basically every Wisconsin quarterback ever. He probably has more natural talent, but he’s not asked to do a lot other than work off of play action and make some basic pro style passes. The two interceptions he threw were terrible and he needs to get a handle on the exchange before he fumbles away Wisconsin’s chance at the B1G West.
  32. Chez Mellusi can play. He and Guerendo make a solid pair. It’s tough to watch a good defense miss tackles because a 5’11, 204 pound running back is breaking them. I’ll be interested to see how he finishes up the year.
  33. Wisconsin is frustrating because they make timely plays that make your heart jump out of your chest. Jake Ferguson made a amazing grab on a short pass near the goal line on 3rd down, and Danny Davis III basically did the same thing late in the fourth.
  34. Timely, though, doesn’t mean effective. It just makes you better than last year’s efficient, but ultimately unproductive Penn State offense.
  35. The biggest takeaway from last year, to me anyway, is that turnovers and explosiveness matter. I mentioned earlier that Wisconsin doesn’t have the personnel or the scheme to make the kinds of plays that won this game. Those are related issues. Wisconsin’s scheme may be different in design than Kirk Ciarrocca’s, but the principles are identical – dominate possession and roll up yardage. They attract excellent running backs because the scheme mostly works.
  36. It doesn’t work, though, when your quarterback turns the ball over or when you can’t finish drives. You’re left with hollow stat victories (62 more yards and almost 26 more minutes of possession) and a 6 point loss.
  37. Gerry DiNardo made this point on BTN on Saturday. Penn State has the guys to go score points on big plays when they need to. Wisconsin doesn’t. You can say anything you want about yards and redzone failures. We did a lot of that last year. But if Wisconsin could throw a few more 20 yard passes, they’d be a very different team.
  38. For what it’s worth, I found that stat about Wisconsin scoring defense shown on Saturday to be a bit out of context. The Badger game plan is almost always predicated on time of possession, so it’s not surprising that scoring defense would be incredibly successful.
  39. I don’t think they’re as good as that stat indicates, but I do believe that Wisconsin is a very good defense and made life very difficult for Penn State on Saturday, and will make life difficult for every team is faces this year.
  40. The fact that Clifford avoided the turnover bug again is a huge victory. He makes a few big plays each game with his legs and arm. Assuming he doesn’t offset those by interceptions and fumbles, this offense will score points and be hard to beat.
  41. Sometimes this game was ugly. On the other hand, we actually had offensive touchdowns here, as opposed to Clemson/Georgia. It’s a great win to start the year.
  42. I wouldn’t hate seeing Akron some point soon, though…
  43. On to Ball State.
  44. We are…

(Random Thoughts was once again written by Adam Collyer, who was unable to be credited in the byline at the time of publication due to a technical issue.)