On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State Nittany Lions traveled to Ann Arbor, Michigan to face the Michigan Wolverines in the Big House. The battle of top ten teams was, frankly, not much of a battle. I have several thoughts, which are set forth “randomly” below…
1. Last November, Michigan beat Ohio State in the Big Ten’s most prominent rivalry game for the first time in 8 years and only the second time since 2004. That game was many things, including, as Slate and Split Zone Duo’s Alex Kirschner would call it, an exorcism.
2. In the aftermath of Saturday’s miserable Penn State failure, I reviewed that game and its box score. The exorcism narrative is accurate and certainly the most important piece of the puzzle for a Michigan fan. For me, though, the thing I kept coming back to was the dominance.
3. Michigan won that game 42-27 and it wasn’t that close. In a game that featured a Buckeye signal called that was a Heisman finalist completed nearly 70% of his passes for 394 yards, Michigan opened up a two touchdown lead and basically kept its palm on Ohio State’s forehead for the remaining 21 minutes of game time.
4. Saturday’s game was, remarkably, much of the same. The fundamental difference between Penn State’s 2022 and Ohio State’s 2021 performances essentially boils down to Ohio State’s incredible offensive efficiency outpacing Penn State’s…well, whatever that was.
5. Clearly, though, quarterback play didn’t matter that much. In both games, Michigan’s starting quarterback threw for less than 160 yards. In both games, Michigan’s rushing offense dominated at the point of attack and gained chunk plays on the ground.
6. All that is to say, this one was not Sean Clifford’s fault. Even assuming Drew Allar is who everyone believes him to be, Penn State still isn’t winning a game like Saturday’s. Not once.
7. In retrospect, this should have been easier to predict. Virtually everyone predicted Penn State would lose this game – it’s hard to win on the road, it’s hard to beat top 5 teams, and it’s a tremendous feat to beat a top 5 team on the road.
8. When you think about what Penn State wants to be, it makes sense. Penn State wants to mirror Ohio State’s offense conceptually – explosive plays, minimal turnovers, score from any spot on the field. Marry that with a typically excellent defense, and the Nittany Lions are a playoff contender.
9. Of course, the Lions couldn’t contain Michigan’s running game and they are meaningfully worse than Ohio State 2021 on offense. Of course they were embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for suggesting otherwise.
10. This is not a defense of Sean Clifford. He didn’t play well on Saturday and for someone with his experience, that’s a significant problem. He also had a 62 yard run that set up Penn State’s only offensive touchdown, and made several downfield plays in the passing game.
11. So…I don’t know.
12. I’m not convinced Allar is ready for a full time starting role either. He’s looked mostly good this season, but he certainly struggled against the same defense that Clifford struggled against here.
13. Everyone calling for Allar to start is doing so on little more than recruiting rankings and hope. He’s not going to fix the defensive issues that existed on Saturday.
14. There is some thought out in the atmosphere that Penn State has nothing to lose by starting him – the ceiling is higher, but the floor stays the same.
15. Candidly, I don’t understand this line of thinking at all. It’s true that I’m more conservative by nature, but things can absolutely get worse with a true freshman quarterback. We don’t know how he’ll hold up when he faces defenses designed to make things confusing for him. We don’t know if he’ll be turnover prone. We don’t know if he’s mentally ready to shoulder the leadership load required of him at this very moment.
16. Only two people know that for sure – James Franklin and Mike Yurcich. Problematically, there’s not a ton of trust from the fan base in their offensive decision making at the moment.
17. Don’t mistake things – this can get worse. The ceiling for this team, barring something unusual happening on October 29th, is 10-2 and a New Year’s Six berth. The floor is probably something like 9-3, assuming Clifford stays healthy and continues to limit turnovers.
18. The ceiling for Allar is probably something similar. The floor could actually get significantly lower. If you’re James Franklin, are you risking a potential 10-2 season for a 7-5 developmental year that will still get you castigated in Fansville?
19. Everyone in the world (except me, apparently) expected Penn State to lose this game. It happened, and half the fan base is still apoplectic. The idea that everyone will give Franklin a pass if Penn State goes 7-5 or 8-4 with Allar at the helm because they drop a dumb game to Indiana is just not a reasonable expectation.
20. I’m trying very hard not to make a single bad loss an indictment of the entire program. They’re still 5-1, still hovering around the top 15, and still in position to put a very good season together.
21. Honestly, though, some of the narrative is appropriate to question. Like, why does Penn State perform so terribly after a bye week?
22. Or, more critically, will Penn State be 5-3 at the beginning of November? They play one of the best teams in the country in two weeks and the record post-first loss leaves a lot to be desired in the past few years.
23. Losing this game means the margin of error for a really good year is out the window. Minnesota is now a must win. November is filled with must wins.
24. Ultimately, the post-loss reaction and stress is understandable here. Basically everything was poor on Saturday and that should cause every player and coach to reassess exactly what’s happening.
25. This kind of loss cannot happen against Michigan. It is not Ohio State or Georgia or Alabama. This is a fully comparable program and Penn State was, to use PJ Mustipher’s terms, embarrassed on Saturday in a high profile national broadcast. The game plan was bad, the execution was bad, and they got worked top to bottom.
26. I could spend time going through individual plays and positive moments, but that’s a waste of time. The following is all you need to know to understand Saturday’s result:
27. Penn State got the defensive score they wanted and still lost by 24 points; and,
28. Michigan ran 24 plays in the first quarter. Penn State ran 6.
29. There’s not much more to be said here that hasn’t already been said. This season can still be excellent, provided this team can use this result as motivation for next week.
30. On to Minnesota. Who doesn’t love a White Out?
31. We are…