On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights engaged in a contest of American football at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey. Penn State emerged victorious, 23-6. I have several thoughts, which are set forth randomly below:
1. Even though the Nittany Lions put together their first complete game of the season against Michigan the week prior, this past Saturday’s game remained in some doubt prior to the opening kickoff.
2. Reasonably so. The talent differential on these teams alone is sufficient to make Penn State a 10-point favorite. Of course, you could’ve said that much about Maryland and Nebraska as well, and we all know what happened there.
3. This season, though, hasn’t made many believers. Truth be told, concern over Rutgers was legitimate. They aren’t overwhelmingly talented (or even…talented), but they’re well coached and they play hard. They’re once again playing for a coach who commands the respect of the locker room, has been successful, and, importantly, has been successful there. He’s well acquainted with the challenges of coaching in Piscataway.
4. The scare they put into Michigan a few weeks ago meant enough to me that I though this game would be both tough and potentially embarrassing.
5. I was wrong and I’ll gladly admit that. A win is a win is a win is a win, and I’ll always be happy about them. Still, there was something deeply unsatisfying about the manner in which things unfolded here.
6. Make no mistake, though, this was vastly more satisfying than the last several games against the Scarlet Knights. In those games, we had a top 10ish team facing off against a poorly coached, untalented ball club. The effort was lackadaisical, the energy was non-existent, and the whole thing felt like a slog.
7. This week, at least, we looked dominant. Even if the scoreboard doesn’t appear much different on its face.
8. The weather was a constant topic. It was awful around here – rain and gusting wind all around made for ugly game conditions. Imagine my surprise when we decided to come out throwing.
9. And we did come out throwing. 10 times. On the opening drive.
10. If you want to get a complete understanding of what this team is – the good, the bad, an the ugly – you need to sit down and re-watch the first drive in its entirety. It’s Penn State’s entire season in microcosm.
11. Penn State opens at its own 10-yard line. Over the next 16 plays, it drives 66 yards. Sean Clifford completes 7 of 10 passes and the offense gets 5 first downs, including one successful fourth down conversion in short yardage with Will Levis at the helm.
12. You can feel free to guess what play Penn State ran with Will Levis in on 4th and 1.
13. Moreover, the young guys really stepped up. It’s easy to see the contributions of a guy like Devyn Ford, who ran with authority and looked truly sharp and working in an offense that plays to his skillset for the first time all year. Or Brenton Strange, who had to step in for an All-American tight end and was able to be a real asset throughout the drive.
14. Even the young guys are getting into the nitty gritty. Matt Millen noted it on commentary briefly, but Theo Johnson really leaned into a block that sprung Levis on the first fourth down play. Without him sticking his nose in there, Levis gets dropped for a loss and Penn State turns the ball over on downs.
15. Those are all good things. Success stories. They make “the future is bright” easy to write.
16. This offense looked great, in bad weather. For 12 plays. Unfortunately, this drive was 16.
17. After the 12th play resulted in a fourth down conversion, Penn State looked exactly like what you expect a college football team to look like on occasion – sloppy. On first down, Keyvone Lee steps on Clifford’s foot by accident and loses three yards. Now off schedule, the Nittany Lions look flummoxed. On 3rd and 13, Clifford throws a screen to Keandre Lambert-Smith, who promptly drops it. That turns a likely 7-yard gain into nothing. On fourth down, the offensive line gets beat, Clifford scrambles and manages to find Jahan Dotson for 7 yards. But because Dotson needed 13, and not 6, the drive stalls out.
18. 16 plays, 6 minutes and 33 seconds, 66 yards, and 0 points.
19. The biggest flaw in this offense is the reason why Tom Bradley’s defensive philosophy was successful for a decade. Because college athletes are still college athletes, which means they aren’t always precision machines. Which is why, absent exceptional quarterback play, an offense that demands 10-plus play drives as the norm is bound to generate substantial yardage and still come away empty handed.
20. Bend but don’t break. The Penn State Way.
21. The next drive, though, is exactly what you want to mix in. Five plays, short field, well structured, with a picture-perfect touchdown strike to an open receiver.
22. I’m thinking Taylor Stubblefield is pretty good. This is the best the receivers have looked since Josh Gattis left in 2017.
23. Penn State isn’t perfect and expecting them to be, especially in the middle of an ugly weather game, is a recipe for disappointment. What I liked about watching this week, though, is that they tried some different things. They mixed up the play calling and went to the well with Sean Clifford more than you’d expect. They didn’t make any unnecessarily aggressive calls, but got him comfortable early and it all paid dividends.
24. Plus, by the time halftime rolled around, the weather was significantly better. Which means that we should have seen the same aggressive but not unnecessary strategy make its way into play calling in the second half.
25. That…didn’t happen.
26. It’s seems obvious that they got spooked by the turnovers. Ford fumbled once, even though it seemed like a bit of a fluke, and then Clifford threw an errant pass that still hit his receiver in the hands, but ended up in the hands of a Rutgers safety.
27. All things considered, these didn’t seem to me like egregious errors. But I understand the need to keep things in check.
28. I do not, however, understand running Will Levis into the defense like a battering ram for 3 straight plays before punting it away. That’s just not going to get it done.
29. For the love of God, can we run something for Will Levis that’s even vaguely different?
30. Clifford basically lived up to my description of him from last week – he’s capable of being more than a game manager, although he managed the game effectively this week in bad weather. He played within himself and made a big play by throwing a laser on that first touchdown. He also showed off some creativity on the first drive, where his nimble feet and ability to play sandlot got Penn State a first down on a broken play.
31. I don’t at all understand why we decided that he couldn’t do that again in the second half. Was the interception so problematic?
32. Defenses are really playing Dotson tough, but I like the fact that it’s opened up the field for everyone else to get involved. There’s plenty of mouths to feed, and that’s a good problem to have.
33. The Penn State defense just overwhelmed the Rutgers offense. They were obviously much, much, much faster.
34. Brandon Smith looked a little Posluszny-esque with that closing speed.
35. Joey Porter, Jr. is likely to be my favorite player on this defense for a while, although any corner that can come in full speed on the blindside and convert a sack the way that Daequan Hardy did may just take over the top of the list.
36. Momentum is a funny thing. I always thought that the 2002 Nebraska team was better than its final record, and that its final record was, in large measure, due to the embarrassment they suffered in Beaver Stadium in early-September. That was a solid, if unspectacular team that never fully recovered.
37. 2005 Penn State looked (and basically was) unbeatable (minus 2 seconds), and that stemmed from a 2005 goal line stand against Indiana.
38. I’m not saying Michigan or Rutgers are world beaters. But neither are Maryland, Nebraska, or Iowa. And the results have been markedly different the past two weeks than the first five.
39. Let’s right this ship.
40. On to Sparty.
41. We are…