For the second consecutive year, Penn State opened its season with a three-game stretch that included two Power Five opponents. For the second consecutive year, the Nittany Lions came out of that stretch 3-0.
Although there is still a lot to learn about these Nittany Lions, let’s look back at the last three games and see what we learned so far.
THE FUTURE IS RIGHT NOW
The youth movement going on in Happy Valley is far-and-away the biggest takeaway from the first three games. Prior to the season, I predicted that Penn State would finish 8-4, with one of the major reasons why being that I thought this team was going to be a year away. When I looked at the roster, I liked the talent and depth, I just thought they would be asking a lot out of guys before they were truly capable for the moment.
Instead, so many of those players have already risen to the occasion, with the most obvious one being Nicholas Singleton. The former five-star wasted no time in introducing himself to the college football world, displaying ridiculous breakaway speed that Penn State has lacked at running back since Journey Brown’s medical retirement in 2020.
True freshman Nick Singleton after this 54-yard TD:— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 17, 2022
2 TD pic.twitter.com/f0x2ozmuq9
Rightly so, Singleton is getting a lot of accolades both locally and nationally, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg for breakout players at Penn State. There’s Singleton’s running back mate Kaytron Allen, who shows the patience and vision of a 10-year NFL vet. There’s left tackle Olu Fashanu, who has quickly established himself as one of the best tackles in the Big Ten. There’s defensive end Chop Robinson, who looks like Aaron Maybin 2.0 with his get off and quickness. There’s linebacker Abdul Carter, who led Penn State in tackles against Auburn while picking up a sack, forcing a fumble, and just being an all-out psycho all over the field.
My main point in highlighting those breakout guys is that while it is still very early in the season, there’s absolutely a realistic scenario where Singleton, Chop, Fashanu, and Carter end the year as four of the top eight players on the team. Having young guys like that make *such* significant impacts right away truly does change the dynamics for what Penn State can accomplish this season.
Will it be enough to overtake both Michigan and Ohio State? That remains to be seen. But in my view, the floor and ceiling has been raised for this team given what we’ve seen from the new faces.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE HAS TURNED THE CORNER
One of the major themes for James Franklin during the offseason was that he was going to let the offensive line play speak for itself this year. Any time he was asked about the group during fall camp, he was tight-lipped to say much of anything, understanding that the fan base was not interested in hearing hype about a unit that hasn’t lived up to expectations in most years.
As it turns out, this year appears to be different as the offensive line has flat out been good. Sure, it isn’t going to remind anyone of 1994 or 2008, but the fellas up front are — to take a phrase from Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator Tommy Rees — doing their jobs. After some frustrating seasons where that hasn’t been the case, it’s been a welcomed sight.
The reason for the improvement on the offensive line is due to a number of factors, though I don’t think “talent” is all that high up there. Yes, Penn State certainly has talented guys on the offensive line — Landon Tengwall and Caedan Wallace were Top 100 prospects, while Juice Scruggs and Saleem Wormley were four-star prospects in their own right. But a lack of talent hasn’t really been an issue in the past for the Nittany Lions. Michal Menet was a borderline five-star prospect. Rasheed Walker and CJ Thorpe were Top 100 players. Ryan Bates and Conor McGovern are starters in the NFL, while Will Fries is on the Colts’ active roster.
The obvious answer here is pretty simple: the execution has been much better. I think a big reason for that is the synergy between offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and offensive line coach Phil Trautwein, who are now in their second season together. That collaboration between an offensive coordinator and his position coaches (especially the offensive line coach) is an underrated aspect with regards to how successful an offense can be. Trautwein even said as much at media day this summer, pointing out that a second year within the same scheme would be a positive for the offensive line — and that’s what we are seeing. They are playing faster and playing smarter, whether it’s the improvement when dealing with twists on passing downs or getting to the second level in the running game.
Beyond that, I also like that we are seeing a bit more diversity within the scheme itself. The offense seemed like they were a bit heavier with zone-blocking schemes last year, whereas we’re starting to see more-and-more gap-blocking calls as this young season goes along. That sets up well for players like Nicholas Singleton, but also for the individuals on the line too — Sal Wormley and Landon Tengwall have both shown some really good things when pulling.
SEAN CLIFFORD HAS BEEN MOSTLY FINE
Oh, Mr. Clifford. It wouldn’t be a big picture look at Penn State without diving into what No. 14 has done this year.
All in all, I think Penn State fans should be happy with Clifford because it has been mostly good. Through three games, Cliff has a 64% completion rate, 673 yards, 8 total touchdowns (3 rushing), and 1 interception that may or may not have almost lost Penn State the Purdue game. The key word there? “Almost” because Cliff came back out there, and led the Nittany Lions to a game-winning-freaking-drive.
Here’s the issue though: Penn State is going to need more than “fine” if it wants to win the Big Ten East, and that is where the trepidation has always been with Clifford. Most normal fans realize that Clifford doesn’t suck; he’s a pretty good quarterback. But when you are Penn State and you are trying to take down the juggernaut that is Ohio State, you will need more than “fine” or “pretty good” at quarterback.
For Penn State, the hope moving forward is that most games the Nittany Lions can get away with the “Auburn 2022” game plan — lean on the running game, stay on schedule on early downs, and put Cliff in situations where he isn’t asked to do a ton. And then pray to the good football gods above that against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State, he has an “Auburn 2021” performance.
THE DEFENSE IS ROUNDING INTO FORM
When you look at where Penn State ranks in a number of basic defensive categories, it isn’t a pretty sight. Scoring defense, they are 9th in the Big Ten. Rushing defense, they are 9th in the Big Ten. Passing defense, they are 12th in the Big Ten. But that isn’t all that surprising given the opening stretch of games for the Nittany Lions. While other Big Ten squads were hosting — oh, I don’t know — Colorado State, Hawaii, and UConn, Penn State was on the road actually challenging themselves.
I have to say, despite the fact I liked the Manny Diaz hire at defensive coordinator, I was a little apprehensive at what exactly this defense would be. The transition from Pry-to-Diaz wasn’t that drastic, but Diaz’s defenses do put a greater emphasis on generating turnovers. Of course, that’s a good thing in theory, but it’s a risky proposition if you don’t have the pieces to create the chaos, havoc, and pressure necessary to actually do the “generating” part.
We saw a bit of that concern during the first three quarters of the Purdue game, when Penn State’s defense felt quite flimsy. Fortunately, the fourth quarter was a different story, and that story has been a pretty good one since then. Diaz’s group did a superb job against an overwhelmed Ohio squad, and then put on a tremendous performance against Auburn, generating a number of timely turnovers.
I think what I like most about the defense is that it feels like they are just starting to hit their stride, and that really begins with the defensive line. Purdue certainly did a good job of getting the ball out quickly to negate any type of pass rush, but I thought the performance for the defensive front as a whole was lackluster. That’s changed though over the last two weeks, with the group having far-and-away their best game last Saturday. It makes a lot of sense that the group wasn’t sharp from the get-go given the layoff a number of them have had. PJ Mustipher coming off a torn ACL. Adisa Isaac coming off his season-ending injury. Hakeem Beamon coming off his full-year suspension. Even Chop Robinson, having to make the move from linebacker to defensive end at a different school without a spring practice. So no surprise it took a bit for this group to get going, but good nonetheless that I thought all of Mustipher, Beamon, and Isaac had their best games against Auburn.
Overall, I just really like how the defense has progressed on the short season. Still absolutely have some things to clean up — they have given up a lot of yardage — but I’m a fan of how things are trending for Diaz’s crew.
THE BIG TEN DOESN’T LOOK THAT SCARY
- Northwestern lost to Duke and Southern Illinois at home.
- Michigan’s opponents have a combined record of 2-9.
- Minnesota’s opponents are winless.
- Indiana trailed both Idaho (!!!) and Western Kentucky at the half.
- I actually don’t have anything that bad to say about Maryland, but they are Maryland.
- Rutgers margin of victory over Boston College and Temple was a combined 3 points.
- Michigan State got smacked by the only team with a pulse (sorry, Coach Moorhead) that they played.
Now of course, dumb losses are possible. We as Penn State fans know that very well. But I think through the first three weeks, you have to be pretty happy about how the schedule continues to shape up. No team has really exceeded preseason expectations, and there’s no game that look anymore challenging than it did before.