For the second year in a row, Penn State opened its season with a three-game stretch that featured two of its five strength competitors. For the second year in a row, Nittany Lions are out of that stretch 3-0.
Although there is still a lot to learn about the Nittany Lions, let’s take a look at the last three games and see what we’ve learned so far.
The future is right now
The youth movement running in Happy Valley far and away is the biggest takeaway from the first three games. Pre-season, I predicted Penn State would finish 8-4, with one of the main reasons I think this team would be a year away. When I looked at the list, I loved the talent and the depth, I thought they’d ask a lot of guys before they were really capable at the moment.
Instead, several of these players have already risen to the occasion, the most notable being Nicholas Singleton. The former five-star star wasted no time in introducing himself to the world of college football, displaying a ridiculous breakaway pace that Penn State has lacked in decline since Jerney Brown’s medical retirement in 2020.
Really in that, Singleton has a lot of accolades both locally and nationally, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg for veteran Penn State players. There’s fellow Singleton back-racing Kaytron Allen, who shows patience and vision to an NFL vet for 10 years. There is a left tackle by Olu Fashanu, who has quickly established himself as one of the best tackles in the Big Ten. There is defensive end Chub Robinson, who likens Aaron Maiben 2.0 with his speed and descent. There’s linebacker Abdul Carter, who led Penn State in tackles against Auburn while picking up a sack, forcing confusion, and being just a blanket psychic all over the field.
My main point of highlighting these top players is that while it’s still very early in the season, there is a completely realistic scenario where Singleton, Chop, Fashanu and Carter will end the year as four of the top eight players on the team. Having guys like that make *like* big impacts instantly really changes the dynamics of what Penn State can achieve this season.
Will that be enough to bypass Michigan and Ohio? That remained to be a sight. But from my point of view, the floor and ceiling for this team was raised given what we saw of the new faces.
The offensive line turned the corner
One of James Franklin’s main themes during the holiday period was that he would allow the offensive line to speak for itself this year. Anytime he was asked about the group during fall camp, he was too silent to say much of anything, realizing that the fan base wasn’t interested in hearing about the hype around a unit that didn’t live up to expectations in most years.
As it turns out, this year looks different because the offensive line has been so good. Sure, no one will mention 1994 or 2008, but the friends up front – take a phrase from Notre Dame attack coordinator Tommy Reese – are doing their job. After some frustrating seasons where this wasn’t the case, it was a welcome sight.
The improvement in offensive line is due to a number of factors, although I don’t think the ‘talent’ is all that high there. Yes, Penn State certainly has talented players up front — Landon Tengwal and Kidan Wallace were top 100, while Gus Scruggs, Slim and Ramli were four-stars in their own right. But the lack of talent has not been a problem in the past for the Nitani Lions. Michel Menet was among the potential five-star candidates. Rashid Walker and CJ Thorpe were among the top 100 players. Ryan Bates and Conor McGovern are rookies in the NFL, while Will Fries was on the Colts’ active roster.
The obvious answer here is very simple: the implementation was much better. I think the main reason for that is the collaboration between offensive coordinator Mike Jurcic and offensive line coach Phil Trautwin, who are now in their second season together. This cooperation between the offensive coordinator and his coaches (particularly the offensive line coach) is an aspect that has been underestimated in terms of how successful the attack is. Even Trautwein He said a lot on Media Day This summer, noting that a second year within the same scheme will be positive for the offensive line – and that’s what we’re seeing. They play faster and play smarter, whether that’s getting better when dealing with twists in passing or getting to the next level in a running game.
On top of that, I also like that we’re seeing a bit more diversity within the chart itself. The offense looked like it was a little heavier with the zone’s ban schemes last year, as we started to see more and more gap-filling calls as this young season dragged on. This is good for players like Nicholas Singleton, but also for the folks on the line as well – Sal Wormley and Landon Tingwall showed some really good things on the checkout.
Sean Clifford was very well
Oh, Mr. Clifford. It wouldn’t be a comprehensive look at Pennsylvania without a dive into what #14 did this year.
Overall, I think Penn State fans should be happy about Clifford because he’s been mostly good. With three games, Cliff has a 64% completion rate, 673 yards, 8 total touchdowns (3 lunges), and one interception that may or may not have nearly lost Penn State the Purdue. keyword there? “Almost” because Cliff is back there, and driving the Nittany Lions to a great driving game.
Here’s the problem though: Penn State would need more than a “fine” if it wanted to win the Big East, and that’s where Clifford has always been feared. Most casual fans are aware that Clifford doesn’t suck; He is a good midfielder. But when you’re in Pennsylvania and trying to eliminate the juggernaut that represents Ohio, you’ll need more than “good” or “very good” in the middle.
For Pennsylvania, the hope going forward is that most Nittany Lions can get away with their “Auburn 2022” game plan — rely on running game, staying on schedule in early descents, and putting Cliff in situations where it’s not in demand do tons. Then pray to the good football gods on top of that against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State, he has an “auburn 2021” performance.
Defense is in shape
When you look at Penn State’s ranking in a number of primary defensive categories, it’s not a pretty sight. Defensive scoring, they are 9 in the top ten. Hasty defense, they are 9 in the Big Ten. Passing defense, they are 12 in the top ten. But that’s not surprising given the inaugural gaming sprawl for the Nittany Lions. While the other Big Ten teams were hosting – oh, I don’t know – Colorado State, Hawaii and Ocon State, Pennsylvania State was already on the road challenging itself.
I have to say, despite the fact that I would love to have Mane Diaz as the defensive coordinator, I was a little apprehensive about what exactly that defense would be. The transition from Pry-to-Diaz wasn’t that drastic, but Diaz’s defenses focus more on generating transformations. Of course, this is fine in theory, but it’s a risky proposition if you don’t have the pieces to create the chaos, destruction, and pressure needed to actually do the “generating” part.
We saw a bit of that angst during the first three quarters of a Purdue game, when Penn State’s defense felt seriously sluggish. Thankfully, the fourth quarter was a different story, and that story has been pretty good ever since. Diaz’s group did a great job against the heavily burdened Ohio team and then put in a phenomenal performance against Auburn, leading to a number of timely turnarounds.
I think what I like the most about defense is the feeling like they’re just starting to make progress, and that really starts with the defensive line. Sure enough, Bordeaux did a good job taking the ball out quickly to nullify any sort of quick pass, but I thought the defensive front as a whole was lackluster. But that has changed over the past two weeks, with the group having their best game over distance last Saturday. It makes perfect sense that the group wasn’t that sharp from the start given that a number of them were laid off. PJ Mustipher comes out with a torn ACL. Odessa Isaac comes out of his injury at the end of the season. Hakim Beamon is out of a year-long suspension. Even Chop Robinson, had to go from linebacker to defensive end at a different school without spring practice. So it wasn’t a surprise that this group started to move forward, but it’s nice nonetheless that I thought Mustaver, Beamon and Isaac had their best matches against Auburn.
In general, I really like how the defense has progressed in the short season. There are still some things to clean up – they have given up Much from the yards – but I like how things are going for the Diaz crew.
The Big Ten doesn’t look that scary
- Northwestern lost to Duke and Southern Illinois at home.
- Michigan opponents have a combined record of 2-9.
- Minnesota’s opponents are not winning.
- Indiana lags Idaho (!!!) and Western Kentucky in half.
- I don’t actually have anything bad to say about Maryland, but they are from Maryland.
- Rutgers’ margin of victory over Boston College and Temple was a combined 3 points.
- Michigan State was stunned by the only beat-up (sorry, Coach Moorhead) team they played.
Now of course, Stupid losses are possible. We as Penn State fans know that all too well. But I think for the first three weeks, you have to be very happy about how the schedule is still shaping up. No team has exceeded pre-season expectations, and no game looks as challenging anymore as it once did.