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Four Things I Liked: Post-Minnesota

Only positives today.

Minnesota v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

After the ranting and raving last week, I’ve decided that I am going to only focus on the positives this week because you know what? Penn State didn’t let a horrendous loss bleed into their next game like they have done *so* many times in the past. 6-1, baby!

1. Involving Theo Johnson

Five receptions. 75 yards. One touchdown.

It was a beautiful sight Saturday evening seeing Theo Johnson truly utilized within the passing game to that degree. It wasn’t just as a checkdown in the flats where Johnson already had a defender on his back. Instead, it was down the field inbetween the hash marks; somewhere where the 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end had a chance to leave his mark on the game.

I feel like I’ve been asking for Johnson to be better utilized for a decade now despite the fact he’s only in his third season with the program, but it comes back to having an uber-talented unicorn at tight end and not wanting to see that wasted. Yes, I realize Penn State has a talented tight end room, and yes I realize that part of being a tight end is blocking — something that Johnson certainly isn’t elite at. But man, I don’t know if there’s a bigger mismatch on the roster than Johnson going against most opposing linebackers and safeties. Very few players in college football can match his size, athleticism, and fluidity. It’s just a matter of getting him in the ball in advantageous spots like Penn State did Saturday night.

2. Attacking Vertically

Sticking with the offense, I thought offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich had a much better game plan this week. Now of course, it’s much easier to game plan for Minnesota than it was for Michigan. No one would deny that. But after last week’s game plan which felt reactive and timid, it was a nice change of pace to see a Penn State offense that was dictating what they wanted to do. They were the ones putting the pressure on the Golden Gopher defense.

The tight ends, like we talked about above with Theo Johnson, were a big part of that. Johnson had a 25-yard catch, while Tyler Warren’s lone catch went for a 38-yard touchdown. Just as important though were the wide receivers, with Mitchell Tinsley pulling down a 30-yard grab along the sideline and Parker Washington snagging a 35-yard touchdown.

That was three passing plays of 30 yards or more for Penn State, an area they have struggled mightily with all throughout the season. Heading into the Minnesota game, they only had six other passing plays of 30 yards or more through the other six games:

  • Brenton Strange (67 yards) vs. Purdue
  • Parker Washington (34 yards) and Omari Evans (32 yards) vs. Ohio
  • Mitchell Tinsley (34 yards) vs. Auburn
  • Parker Washington (43 yards) vs. Northwestern
  • Tre Wallace (48 yards) vs. Michigan

As I mentioned in one of these articles before, those big passing plays are needed for an offense if it wants to reach its potential. Not only do they force a defense to play less aggressively, but plays of 30+ yards or more tend to lead to points. In fact, the Nittany Lions have at least came away with points on all nine of those drives that have featured a pass play of 30+ yards or more; with six of them being touchdowns.

Of course, with a big reward comes a big risk. When you are chucking it deep, you leave yourself susceptible to interceptions — which we saw during the first quarter on Saturday. But that’s just going to have to be something that Mike Yurcich and Co. have to live with, because this idea that you are going to take down an Ohio State team by playing in a 15-yard box just isn’t reality. You have to attack them every which way, which includes some “50/50” balls vertically.

3. Abdul Carter Playing More With Curtis Jacobs

After a disaster of a performance against Michigan, the Penn State linebacker corps turned in possibly their best game of the season against Minnesota. A big reason for that was Manny Diaz getting the Nittany Lions’ two best linebackers on the field at the same time more often, with Curtis Jacobs (42 snaps) seeing some time at his old SAM linebacker spot and Abdul Carter (49 snaps) taking over at the WILL.

Jacobs in particular looked like the All-Big Ten linebacker a lot of us thought he’d be coming into the season. He finished the night with 14 tackles and 2 TFLs, which is an especially massive performance when you consider he came into the game with 22 tackles and 1.5 TFLs on the entire season.

Moving forward, I think it’s a pretty simple decision to stick with what has garnered you the best results — which is Carter and Jacobs on the field as much as possible. I thought it was going to be Carter taking over the MIKE, but obviously, Penn State was able to work back in Jacobs at the SAM the last few weeks.

Does that completely solve the issues at linebacker? Probably not. As much as I love Carter, this is a kid that was basically playing defensive end in suburban Philadelphia last year this time. There are going to be growing pains, especially at a spot like the WILL which asks a linebacker to do a lot. But like I said last week: Penn State has few options, and at this point, a true freshman is the best one.

4. Non-Ohio State/Michigan White Outs

When it was semi-announced way back in the summer that the dumb-dumbs at FOX were going to make Penn State-Ohio State a noon kick, the completely right decision was to make the Minnesota game the White Out. But I have to say, heading into the weekend, it felt like there was little-to-no juice for the game. Penn State coming off a thorough beatdown, while the White Out opponent was an unranked Minnesota squad, I just wasn’t sure what to expect on Saturday night.

But folks, the crowd in Happy Valley brought it.

Tons of juice in the stadium. The student section was full a good 30 minutes prior to kickoff. People were loud. People were on their feet. It was a really fun atmosphere, and one which most definitely aided Penn State’s performance on the field.

With how well Saturday ended up playing out, I think Penn State’s administration is going to feel very comfortable telling the folks at FOX that they aren’t getting a White Out with these noon kicks. The revised 2023 schedule is actually coming out this afternoon, so it’ll be interesting to see where that Michigan vs. Penn State game lands.