The non-conference is officially in the books as the rest of Penn State’s slate will be nothing but sweet Big Ten magic. Before we jump into the conference affairs, let’s breakdown two things we have liked about the Nittany Lions through four games, and two things we haven’t liked so far this season.
1. Turnover Margin
Ever since the James Franklin era started here in Happy Valley, one of the major focuses he harps on during media availabilities when previewing/reviewing games is the turnover battle. Over the last 10-ish years, Franklin has emphasized the importance in Penn State’s offense taking care of the ball while the defense needs to have the ability to generate turnovers.
This year, we are seeing just how impactful an extremely positive turnover margin can be. Through four games, the Nittany Lions have caused nine turnovers (five fumbles, four interceptions) defensively to just giving the ball away once (Cliff’s INT against Purdue), good enough for a 2.00+ turnover margin per game.
It goes without saying why good teams would want positive turnover margins, but in Penn State’s case, it’s salient for two main reasons:
- The defense is giving up a lot of yardage — 367 yards per game.
- The offense is having trouble generating explosive passing plays — more on that in a bit.
Limiting scoring opportunities is obviously a big win for the defense, but creating those extra scoring opportunities for yourself — usually with decent-to-good field position — can really swing games when the rest of the box score points in another direction.
2. Brenton Strange
This one is a bit of me eating some crow because if you asked me who I’d like to see as TE1 and TE2 this season, I would have went with Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren. Now, that wasn’t so much as a dig toward Brenton Strange as much as it was just how much I think of Johnson and Warren. I thought Strange was a fine tight end, but liked the upside of Johnson and Warren more. Instead, Strange has taken his game to the next level. He’s catching everything thrown his way, he’s been a nice safety valve on check downs, and has continued to be a premier red zone target for Sean Clifford.
More than the receiving though, Strange has really progressed as a blocker; something that has been missing from his game the last couple years. He’s made some extremely key blocks throughout the season, namely against Auburn.
So yeah, for someone who doubted him a bit and thought there was a decent chance he’d get passed over, I’m just here to eat my crow. He’s been strong in the passing game, strong in the running game, and Penn State is better when he’s on the field. Mmmmm. Crow.
I DON’T LIKE...
1. Vertical Passing Game
I mentioned earlier in the article that the Penn State offensive was having trouble creating “explosive” passing plays, and that’s corroborated in the stats. The Nittany Lions have had plenty of 20-yard+ passing plays — 17 to be exact, good for 2nd in the Big Ten — but anything after that is scarce. Penn State has just four passing plays of greater than 30 yards (2nd-to-last in the Big Ten) and only one of greater than 40 yards (last in the Big Ten).
This is important because like we mentioned earlier with James Franklin, there has always been a focus on “explosive” plays during his tenure. Basically every season that Franklin has been in Happy Valley, Penn State has — at the very least — been in the top half of the Big Ten when it came to 30+ yard passing plays.
- 2014: 9th
- 2015: 1st
- 2016: 1st
- 2017: 2nd
- 2018: 6th
- 2019: 7th
- 2020: 4th
- 2021: 3rd
This has been something of a concern since the first game, but it really stuck out against Central Michigan on Saturday. The Chippewas went man coverage, cover 0 for a decent portion of the game, essentially daring Sean Clifford and the passing attack to beat them deep. It was largely a successful strategy (7.7% explosive play rate and just a 30.8% success rate against man!) for Central Michigan’s defense, with James Franklin even after the game emphasizing how Penn State’s offense needs to make teams pay for going cover 0.
Unfortunately, neither Jahan Dotson nor KJ Hamler are walking through that door for the Nittany Lions, and there really aren’t too many obvious candidates to take the tops off of defenses. Parker Washington is much more built to do damage near the line of scrimmage or on intermediate routes. Mitchell Tinsley probably lacks the long-speed to be a consistent deep threat.
The two players who fit the bill the most from an athletic perspective — KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Harrison Wallace — have struggled with consistently gaining separation from cornerbacks. As I mentioned after the Ohio game, Lambert-Smith in particular is dangerous with the ball in his hands — the problem is getting the ball in his hands, especially down the field.
Finding some semblance of a vertical attack is going to be important for the Nittany Lions because what Central Michigan did for pieces on Saturday will be implemented by future teams: stack the box, take away the run, play man coverage, and make Clifford and Co. beat you down the field.
Speaking of things that will potentially come back to bite Penn State in the rear-end, it’s time with talk about the placekicking. If a word had to describe Jake Pinegar’s season so far, the word would be “bad.” The fifth-year kicker is 3-for-5 on field goals, with misses coming from 42 yards and 38 yards. Meanwhile, extra points have been just as much of a struggle with Pinegar missing two PATs as well.
I generally dislike circling one player and focusing on their struggles, but as a fifth-year player, Pinegar just isn’t cutting it. He clearly has the leg talent, but this is a guy who has been around for a *long* time — he was the starting placekicker during Trace McSorley’s final season. If your career pre-dates Sean Clifford, you have been around for a while. At this point, we know what Pinegar is and perhaps just as importantly, what he is not.
I won’t sit here and say bench Pinegar for Sander Sahaydak, but what I will say is this: Penn State is using two scholarships on kickers and neither are true freshmen. There’s really no excuse for the kicking game to be this much of a question mark.