What Went Wrong? 2020 Regular Season Recap

Hello Nittany Nation, I am back with a little ‘regular season’ wrap up for this year’s Penn State football season. Things have been a bit busier this year for me, so I have not been able to do a deep dive into the games each week like I did last year – but I look forward to really doing that again in 2021. To the handful of you who do read these, I appreciate the patience.

This has clearly been a rough season for Penn State and fans alike, suffering through a terrible 0-5 start and luckily finding a little bounce back to finish the regular season 3-5. Coming off a New Years Six Bowl win, having what was considered 2 first round NFL draft picks in Micah Parsons and Pat Freiermuth (with hope of a third with Jason Oweh), and a top 10 pre-season ranking – there was reason for real hope which led to very real disappointment.

What unfolded was the worse case scenario for the Nittany Lions, losing half a dozen of their best players before or during the season including both aforementioned first round picks and the starting and backup RBs. A misplay and a controversial call against Indiana handed Penn State their first loss and for the next four games, Penn State never seemed able to bounce back.

It is painful to recount the season, and there is no point in itemizing each disappointment during this dreadful year – but it is important to think about what went wrong so next year there can be improvement. Now through 8 games of logged statistics, those issues are bright and clear.

A quick disclaimer, things may be skewed because of the unequal number of games played in the Big Ten, so keep that in mind.

Red Zone Scoring: Penn State averaged 411 yards per game this season. For all things considered, that is fairly good. For reference, that is the exact same as the team that went 11-2 last year. This brings up one of the major issues in that Penn State was not able to score in the Red Zone. They were able to get into the Red Zone 31 times through 8 games, only scoring a TD 14 of those times. 45% Touchdown conversion ratio in the Red Zone. That, to put it bluntly, is abysmal. The culprit here is harder to determine. Could it be the fades to sub-6ft WRs nonstop? The inability to run in the Red Zone? Maybe QB play? This brings me to my next point.

QB Play / Turnovers: I feel very bad for Sean Clifford. He is a good kid who loves Penn State and got the brunt of the social media fallout after losses this season. A lot of that is toxic sports fandom which needs to be eliminated from sports entirely, but that is besides the point. Clifford did throw 9 interceptions this year (and the team lost 6 fumbles) amounting to the most interceptions and turnovers in the entire Big Ten. That combined with the zero-yard runs up the middle really made this offense look frustrating game after game. Penn State giving up 15 turnovers when only forcing 7 (3 INT and 4 FR) is not a recipe for success. Something needs to be done on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. A lot of blame should and can be put on the Offensive and Defensive lines as well this year, possibly accounting for a lot of these issues.

Lineman Play: The offensive line allowed 23 sacks, the most in the Big Ten. 2.88 sacks per game. Last year we allowed 2.46 sacks per game. As a Penn State fan, I am getting extremely tired of seeing this. It seems that it is year after year that the O-Line is incapable of playing up to the preseason hype. There was not much run blocking either with Penn State getting 3.8 yards per carry on the ground, a full yard less per carry than last season. Maybe (probably/likely) this has to do with the best RBs going down before the season started, but nonetheless  – not much to brag about in our offensive trenches. Defensively, 18 total sacks or 2.25 per game. Last year Penn State was averaging 3.5 sacks per game. Let me put this all together for you – Penn State in 2020 is giving up an extra half a sack per game, rushing a yard per carry less per game, and sacking the opponent one and a half times less per game. I bolded that last sentence because I think that is the most important part of what has gone wrong this year. This is Big Ten Football; games are won in the trenches – seasons are lost when your competitive edge goes null.

Special Teams: Penn State hit 8 of 9 field goals from under 40 yards. Good. Penn State hit 3 of 8 field goals from over 40 yards. Bad. 64.7% field goal conversion rate in 2020. In 2019, it was 86.7%. This is an historically bad turnaround from just a year ago. Punting yards and Touchbacks per kick are about flat from a year ago. There has been improvement on this front as the second half of the season rolled through but that change needs to continue into next year. The combination of not scoring TDs in the red zone and the inability to hit longer field goals is not one that is going to score any team many points.

Penalties: Penalty yards per game are down per game for the season which may come as a surprise to some. This was not the case the whole year. Penn State started the season averaging 52 penalty yards per game for the first half and brought that down to 26 yards per game in the second half. It has felt that some Penn State penalties have been poorly timed or unfair (IE Shaka Toney batting the ball??), which may account for why Penalties have felt like momentum killers this season. Still, it is good news that penalty yardage was halved as the season went on.

This was a lot of bad. There was good too, like younger stars at WR/RB/CB getting some playing time and showing out – but after a 3-8 season, I am going to harp on the bad more, hoping a lot of it can get corrected for the next season. Good news is I do have a lot of hope. I think another year (with no pandemic restrictions hopefully) under OC/QB Ciarrocca and OL coach Trautwein that there can be some impressive improvement from their respective units. I also hope that with younger players on defense showing out that there is real cause for excitement for years to come. I can also convince myself that the special teams is on an upward swing and will continue that way.

What happens with the position coaching and QB situation for 2021 is out of our control, but there is reason to believe that in a non-pandemic year and understanding the mistakes of 2020, 2021 can be a solid bounce back year for the Nittany Lions and a return to the top of the rankings.

Stay tuned for my ‘post-season’ recap and 2021 game previews/analysis coming up. We Are!

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