A Review Of Penn State Football’s First Three Weeks

A Review Of Penn State Football’s First Three Weeks

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With Penn State in a bye week, I wanted to breakdown the season so far and look at what fans can expect going forward.

The season that began so promising almost came to a screeching halt last week in Happy Valley. There were more tense moments in last week’s narrow home 17-10 victory over the Pitt Panthers than any sane Nittany Lion fan could have wanted. Alas, a win is a win, even if it was hard to stomach.

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Reason for optimism

As an outsider to Penn State fandom, I feel like Penn State fans should be optimistic after last week’s scare. For one, Pitt made some incredible plays from start to finish. Pitt was making plays with little space and solid coverage in some cases. The Kenny Pickett to Mack combination was unstoppable on a few occasions and Pitt converted a number of third and long situations, despite a good pass rush and decent coverage schemes. One important observation from this game was execution.

Penn State was able to generate a lot of outside pressure on the pocket, but the interior lineman couldn’t contain Pitt’s quarterback when he stepped up in the pocket. Pickett baited blitzers with deep drop backs and then shot forward in the pocket, picked a side and then found the open receiver on a number of plays. If Penn State can work on containment on those blitzes, we should see more sacks and errant throws as a result.

From a defensive play-calling standpoint, Pitt was executing in tight windows, under pressure and in good coverage. The play calling was fine. On Pitt’s first touchdown, Davis slipped the Nittany Lions defenders, even though they had sniffed the play out and achieved solid penetration at the line. The failure to execute the plays on the ball was the primary reason Penn State wasn’t able to pull away. If the Nittany Lions can make the plays in these situations at least half the time, they should be fine defensively. The defense simply needs to execute in those critical moments.

A mostly balanced squad offensively

Offensively, the Nittany Lions look balanced in the run but mildly questionable in the air. Last week was definitely the first real test of the season for quarterback, Sean Clifford. He went 14 for 30 and his average completion net just 7.4 yards. That’s not great. There’s still a lot of questions to be answered as to how much he can carry the offense on just his arm. If they’re in a negative game script, will he be able to get them back into it? He looks okay for now, managing the offense against sub-par opponents.

Once conference play heats up, will he evolve and unlock the ceiling for this offense? He’s yet to be in that situation, but when you have a quarterback carrying a 57% completion percentage after games against Idaho, Buffalo, and Pitt, it’s not exactly reassuring. On the positive side, Clifford was able to make some plays with his feet and make some good throws on the run. This ability to improvise is so underrated in quarterbacks these days. It’s going to be interesting to see how Clifford develops in the pocket and whether he can develop into a solid quarterback within the conference this season.

The receiving corps has yet to show off its true depth, but KJ Hamler looks incredible with the ball in his hands and Jahan Dotson looks like he’s going to be the firm #2. The running backs are a bright spot here, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to NFL fans out there who know about Miles Sanders and Saquan Barkley. In what might play out as a three-headed monster, Journey Brown has led the committee, alongside Noah Cain and Ricky Slade. Slade has yet to perform at the level many expected, but Journey Brown and Noah Cain have been producing at a high level and I anticipate this balanced running game should give the Nittany Lions a fresh rotation going forward, which should help give them an advantage over tired defenses late in games.

With all the questions in the passing game, thank goodness for Jordan Stout. He’s the designated “long-distance” kicker and he’s hit from 53 and 57 so far this season. He and the other two kickers in the mix should make the difference at some point in a close game this season. It would be statistically, highly likely that they would be a factor at some point, so it’s really reassuring to have such a competent unit to depend upon.

Remaining outlook for 2019

It’s a long season ahead but the possibility of a college football playoff appearance is still very much alive. The Penn State schedule is currently very daunting, so we might get the answers to some of these questions over the next few weeks once the schedule heats up. From there, there are really only two games that won’t be especially rough (Indiana, Rutgers). For now, keep up the optimism and enjoy the bye week…oh and fight on, Penn State.