Saved by the Bell

Last time we spoke there was an equal feeling of nervousness and excitement for the next three games. This anxiety existed because we knew the performance of Penn State in October shaped what would become of the entire season, the recruiting outlook for the next few seasons, and for the emergence of what could be the next great Penn State core under James Franklin. We went through the 4 different possible outcomes of a three-game stretch and saw the massive range of emotions that Penn State would be feeling whether they won-out, lost-out, or had something happen in-between.

Two weeks later Penn State has defeated both of their opponents and improved to a 7-0 record. Michigan State is the only remaining foe on their schedule before a bye-week and the Nittany Lions currently sit #6 in nation. Things are good… really good. This young team could have easily lost one or both of these games but pulled through – not letting their youth be an excuse for mediocrity. There are certainly challenges ahead for PSU Football, possibly even greater than Iowa and Michigan, but there is something to be said about the confidence that gets instilled into a team with two wins against ranked opponents. Aside from LSU, Penn State is the only other team to accomplish such a feat this season so far. From a national perspective, Penn State is a real contender and a serious threat for the playoffs. From a more local perspective, things aren’t as positive; fair or not – there are things to be cleaned up immediately.

Last week I planned to write about the officiating in the Iowa game, and how there needs to be accountability in that part of the game, but decided not to because it almost felt like it would be a detractor to how important that road win was to Penn State. I always struggle with pointing out criticism as a fan after a win because I feel that it makes me seem narcissistic. I mean, who am I to point out flaws – anything I’m seeing the team must also be seeing. This week though, I am going to step out of character for a little bit because I really am perplexed by the state of this Nittany Lion offense.

I was at the game this week and the second half felt like a movie that I have watched again and again. Up by 14-21 points, Penn State could never seem to put the game away or even stay on the field. Through 5 possessions, after the 3rd touchdown in the second quarter, Penn State ran 16 plays total for what felt like less than five seconds of game play. Finally, Penn State scored again to bring the score to 28-14 only to immediately let Michigan back in the game with another touchdown of their own. From then, when we really should have tried to put the game on ice, Ricky Slade inexplicably comes into the game as RB and the Nittany Lions went three and out for the 6th time.

Penn State won the game. They are 7-0. BUT …. I have to point out a few things here:

  • These offensive lulls need to end. Or at least be contained. I mean, Penn State doesn’t need to score every single drive, but they have to find a way to stay on the field. After going up 21-0, the next 5 drives went for
    • 3 plays / 4 yards / 1:02
    • 3 plays / 9 yards / 0:39
    • 4 plays / 12 yards / 2:11
    • 3 plays / 2 yards / 1:00
    • 3 plays / 3 yards / 1:27
  • For those who aren’t math folks that adds up to 16 plays / 30 yards / 6:19 / 0 points. Conversely, Michigan’s 5 drives in that timeframe: 33 plays / 227 yards / 14:46 / 14 points. For essentially an entire half of a game, Penn State stopped playing football. Sure, they didn’t give up the lead but they never let their defense get off of the field! It’s OK to not score every drive but you can’t just rely on your defense to play shut-out football against 4- and 5-star athletes for an entire game.
  • Ice the damn game! Penn State is up 28-21 with 8 minutes to go in the game and Ricky Slade comes in as the running back. There was an audible groan from the white-out crowd when they saw it wasn’t Noah Cain beside Clifford. Cain has proven to be, and coaches have said verbatim, that he is the closer – yet Ricky Slade was in the backfield this drive. And even more perplexing, the first play call was a slow developing pass to Slade five yards behind the line of scrimmage which dropped him for a loss of 4. This put an immense amount of pressure on Clifford to make a play on second down and a missed block (by of course Ricky Slade) drops him for a sack and a loss of another 5 yards. Now Penn State is faced with a 3rd and 19 that is impossible to convert. Less than 2 minutes later, Michigan has the ball again with 7 minutes to go. Michigan was a caught pass in the endzone away from tying the game. This CANNOT be the strategy anymore. We have seen this so many times and too many games have been lost in the 4th quarter because of the inability to run the clock. Noah Cain is the one-cut decisive back who will run the ball forward and get 3-7 yards almost every time. Cain is a luxury that PSU has but for some reason didn’t use last Saturday. That has to change.
  • Take some pressure off of Sean Clifford and his three targets. Not to harp on that one drive but I’m sorry, how can a slow developing pass to Ricky Slade 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage be the play call? You need yards, first downs, and plays that run the clock when you are up late in the game. So many first and second down plays went for short yardage and made third down that much harder for Sean Clifford. There needs to be a little more belief that PSU’s RBs can beat the opposing defense. The four RBs got 13 carries total and that is including Noah Cain’s two at the very end of the game. This combined with the fact that the WR-X position (Daniel George and Justin Shorter) had zero receptions or targets this game. Dotson had one catch … Freiermuth three. More or less there is an entire 11th position on the field that is used as nothing but a decoy this entire season and that MUST change. 52% of the receptions, 60% of the yards, and 79% of the TD catches have been by Hamler, Dotson, or Freiermuth. There will be a time when we are going to need someone else to make a catch or run the ball. This coaching staff needs to find confidence in more pass catchers and find a way to take some pressure off of the offensive stars.

Penn State won the game. They are 7-0. And here is the best news – if my dumbass is seeing these issues so is the coaching staff. I’m confident that Penn State can clean up some of these offensive woes before heading into MSU to close out this tough October stretch. The problem though is that even after the bye-week the schedule doesn’t get much easier; Minnesota will likely be undefeated, Indiana’s looked the best they’ve looked in a long time, and of course that team from Columbus follows right after. The team and fans alike can only focus on the game ahead and that will be a tough matchup against The Spartans. If Penn State can find more receivers, play smarter with a lead, and allow their RBs to shine – I can confidently say that they will win that game and improve to 8-0 on the year. We Are.

7-0

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