What Is Plaguing Penn State Football?

Penn State is coming off of consecutive losses to Ohio State and Michigan State for the second year in a row.

After a stinging one-point loss to the Buckeyes in front of a White Out crowd, James Franklin had an emotional press conference in which he promised to take the next step toward becoming an elite program.

Instead, the Nittany Lions — even with the help of a bye week — laid an egg in Beaver Stadium against Michigan State. 

I do believe that James Franklin is the man going forward and that fans who believe he is incapable of bringing Penn State to an elite level are simply impatient. I also would place myself in the school of thought that college football players don’t owe us anything; it’s plain stupid to criticize them incessantly.

That said, this team has shown more than a couple worrying signs and I just want to figure out what’s going on.

Losing to Michigan State is, to put it lightly, pretty bad. The Spartans were depleted due to injury, coming off a loss to Northwestern, and had already suffered another loss to Arizona State. Penn State is better than Michigan State in terms of talent on paper and had outplayed the Spartans in most departments leading up to the game.

So how did the Nittany Lions manage to let another fourth-quarter lead slip away? Instead, we should probably ask how they were in a close game with Michigan State in the first place.

Lack of Experience

One recurring complaint about Penn State this season from fans (in our Twitter mentions, at least) is that the program seems to have taken a step back from the previous two seasons. I’d attribute that to a lack of experience on both sides of the ball.

On offense, Saquon Barkley is now a New York Giant, Mike Gesicki departed for the Miami Dolphins, and DaeSean Hamilton now plays for the Denver Broncos. All three of those players played incredibly important roles in the passing game, including Barkley, whose deep touchdowns against Wisconsin, Pitt, and Michigan all showed how much of a threat he was through the air.

Miles Sanders has been great on the ground this season, but he doesn’t offer the same threat catching passes as Barkley did. Juwan Johnson had just one career touchdown heading into this season. He had 54 catches for 701 yards in 2017, but hasn’t had nearly the same impact this year. 

Johnson has just 19 catches for 221 yards in the spotlight as the de facto top wideout. DeAndre Thompkins has only six catches and has effectively lost his spot to Brandon Polk, who has just nine grabs. Dropped passes have been a particular problem here, too, as McSorley really hasn’t had much help from his receiving corps this season.

The lack of options in the passing game show up mightily on third downs. The offense converted just three of 14 third-down attempts on Saturday; it lacks a go-to target in such situations. The replacements for Penn State’s departed talent have not kept up the level of play.

This lack of experience may extend beyond the play on the field.

Strange, Conservative Play Calls

Ricky Rahne put together what I believe was the most boring offensive game-plan I’ve seen since 2015. Joe Moorhead loved to take shots down the field and line up in formations that confused defenses.

Rahne seems to favor quick passes to pick up a few yards at a time and running the ball up the middle on Saturday. Nine of McSorley’s 19 passes went for six yards or fewer against Michigan State. His longest pass was a 25-yarder to Pat Freiermuth, which seems sad compared to what Penn State was accomplishing through the air in the 2016 Big Ten Championship game.

One such plain vanilla call came on third down with Penn State on the Michigan State two-yard line. This situation is almost exactly what you’d expect Tommy Stevens to be used for. After all, we know what he can do in the red zone.

Instead, Rahne dialed up a simple fade to Juwan Johnson that didn’t even come close to working. Johnson was unable to make himself any space at all against Justin Layne — the Spartans’ 6’3″ cornerback. The Nittany Lions were forced to settle for a field goal on the possession.

This safe style of play-calling works for teams like Ohio State, but the Buckeyes are not the Nittany Lions. Ohio State has had years of elite recruiting and those receivers need just an inch of space to turn a game on its head.

With the exception of KJ Hamler, the Penn State receiving corps simply has not shown that same ability. Simply put, the offense has not been unleashed and the results haven’t been pretty.

Missed Opportunities On Defense

Sorry in advance for this one, because it’s going to hurt. 

Going back through the condensed game footage of this season for James Franklin’s team, you’ll find a lot of missed tackles. KJ Hill’s game-winning touchdown against Ohio State, for example, had every opportunity to be stopped. Yet, Hill was able to make a couple of defenders miss and waltz into the end zone.

Moore’s touchdown for Appalachian State to give the Mountaineers the lead with 1:48 to play in the fourth quarter is another sterling example of some ineffective defense. He broke two tackles before making his way to the South end zone.

These defensive problems extend beyond missed tackles. In the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game, Amani Oruwariye and Garrett Taylor each had an opportunity to pick off Lewerke and effectively end the game late in the fourth quarter. Instead, those chances literally slipped through the team’s hands.

How do you fix this? Talent, probably. There is a lot of inexperience on the Penn State defense, including players like Taylor, Nick Scott, and Jan Johnson, as well as younger pieces like Micah Parsons and Lamont Wade.

The Buckeyes made it obvious with their screen passes that they were more athletic and explosive than Penn State’s defenders. Franklin’s recruiting in recent years should buck this trend, but it won’t happen immediately.

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About the Author

Derek Bannister

Derek is a senior majoring in Economics and History. He is legally required to tell you that he's from right outside of Philly. Email Derek compliments and dad-jokes at [email protected].

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