Heading into the season, I had a few things I thought I knew about Penn State football:
- The defense wouldn’t be as good as 2021, thanks to losing so many starters
- The offense would still struggle to run the ball
- Sean Clifford would be the second coming of Kenny Pickett
So far, I’d say I’m wrong on two of those three.
The defense has been tremendous, which I did not expect, particularly against the pass. I figured the loss of Tariq Castro-Fields and Jaquan Brisker would make the back end of the defense suspect.
Instead, the pass game has been outstanding, recording PBUs at a nation-leading clip, and recording, just, a bunch of interceptions. The defensive line has stepped up in recent weeks as well, playing well against both the run and the pass.
The linebackers are still a work in progress, sadly. Curtis Jacobs and Abdul Carter are clearly the two best LBs that LBU has right now, but they play the same position and rarely (ever?) get on the field at the same time. Here’s hoping Manny Diaz figures out a way to get them going together, because they bring a different element to the game.
I also expected PSU to struggle on the ground, mostly due to the OL, but also having a combination of Keyvone Lee (trusted veteran but with some physical limitations) and two true freshmen at RB.
Well, the OL has been a strength, particularly the left side. Olu Fashanu and Landon Tengwall have locked up the left side against some solid defenses, and Juice Scruggs has been very solid at center. Sal Wormley and Caedan Wallace haven’t been quite as good on the right side, but overall still acceptable.
The real revelation has been Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen establishing themselves as perhaps the best two freshman RBs in the country. Singleton brings freak athleticism which can turn any play into a long touchdown. Allen brings patience and vision beyond his years, and is no slouch athletically either.
Which brings us to the passing game. I think there are a few things attributing to Penn State’s so-so passing production thus far. First, while Mitchell Tinsley has been an excellent addition to the team, there is no Jahan Dotson or KJ Hamler that can a) command double teams, and b) still take the top off a defense. Tinsley is a fantastic possession receiver, and Parker Washington is an excellent slot guy, but the lack of a true speedster who can get open down the field means that all of the WRs are staying covered, longer.
This does not help Sean Clifford, who has had a fine statistical season so far (137 attempts, 62% completion rate, 1,030 yards, 9 TDs, 2 INTs), but has yet to truly blow any opponent away with his play. At this point, it seems like Clifford will mostly be trusted as a game manager, which again, is fine, but given that the Lions are 5-0 when many thought they’d get to the bye at 4-1 or even 3-2, you’d like to see a bit more from Sean in his final season.
For what it’s worth, I still think after PSU got through Purdue-Ohio-Auburn at 3-0, Penn State turtled up against both Central Michigan and Northwestern (especially in a hurricane), and have been rather content to lean on the run game. My hope is that the fireworks will start again in the upcoming Michigan-Minnesota-Ohio State stretch.
But that’s just me. My perception now, sitting at 5-0, is that the defense is great, and if the LBs can get sorted out, can get to elite. The run game will continue to supplement a passing game which has been so-so thus far, but could take off if Mike Yurcich opens the playbook up a bit more against tougher competition.
What about you? What perceptions have changed for you since August?