Penn State’s Post-Pitt Report Card
Penn State football’s final non-conference game of the season was, well, eventful to say the least.
The Nittany Lions avoided an upset by taking down Pitt by a final score of 17-10. Devyn Ford scored a first-quarter touchdown before the Panthers took a 10-7 lead in the second, but Jordan Stout broke the Penn State record by nailing a 57-yard field goal to end the first half. Noah Cain’s 14-yard score was the only scoring play of the second half, and it helped James Franklin’s program round out its non-conference slate with a perfect record.
It definitely wasn’t a perfect ending to non-conference play for James Franklin’s program. With that in mind, here’s our graded assessment of Penn State’s performance:
Sean Clifford probably had his worst game as Penn State’s starting quarterback on Saturday, but he didn’t have a bad game, per se.
Clifford’s final stat line — 14-for-30 with 222 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions — does indicate the accuracy issues he had throughout the game, which were apparent on deep throws in particular. He missed KJ Hamler, Jahan Dotson, and Justin Shorter with several deep passes during an uncharacteristically inaccurate performance.
Clifford also took quite a bit of punishment throughout Saturday’s game. Clifford took three sacks, and Pitt’s defense recorded three additional hits on him. However, there were plenty of positives sprinkled in Clifford’s performance against the Panthers.
Penn State’s passing game was particularly effective out of the backfield — as evidenced by Ricky Slade’s 40-yard catch and run following a beautifully-run angle route. Clifford didn’t turn the ball over and spread the ball out nicely by finding nine different receivers, but he definitely has room to improve entering the team’s first bye week.
Running Backs: B
Journey Brown registered his first career start at running back on Saturday, and he responded by posting his first 100-yard game. However, 85 of those yards came on one carry in the first quarter, and he was largely ineffective outside of that huge gain.
Noah Cain was probably the standout of the group in terms of consistency, but he got snaps during only one Penn State series. The true freshman picked up 40 yards and the eventual game-winning touchdown on six carries in the third quarter. James Franklin’s decision to keep him off the field was puzzling at best.
Devyn Ford had a quiet day for the Nittany Lions with just six touches for 18 total yards, but he found the back of the end zone for his second career score. Ford’s score was set up by that 85-yard run by Brown, so he’ll need to show signs of improvement to make a consistent impact this year.
Outside his 40-yard reception, Ricky Slade had another quiet game for Penn State. He registered just four yards on as many carries, but his lack of turnovers on Saturday is a sign of improvement.
Wide Receivers: B-
Penn State’s wide receivers didn’t consistently make an impact against Pitt, but the position group did have its moments.
KJ Hamler led the Nittany Lions with 68 yards on three catches. He picked up 53 of those yards on one play in the first quarter after beating Pitt’s Jason Pinnock with a gorgeous stutter-step. However, Hamler’s typically-reliable connection with Sean Clifford just wasn’t there on Saturday — partially because of a few misfires from the quarterback.
Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter each made two catches for a combined 50 yards. Dotson was targeted five times, and Clifford threw passes Shorter’s way three times. The Panthers’ physical secondary limited Penn State’s receivers throughout the game, so Clifford had to take other avenues to get the passing game going.
Tight End: C
Pat Freiermuth wasn’t utilized all that much on Saturday. He was targeted twice and hauled in just one pass for a gain of 16 yards.
Penn State’s offense has typically gotten in trouble when it gets away from feeding Freiermuth the ball. The Idaho game is an outlier because, well, Idaho’s an FCS team, but the Nittany Lions struggled to get anything going in the first half against Buffalo because Freiermuth just wasn’t that involved in the passing game. When Clifford started finding Freiermuth consistently, Penn State started putting points on the board.
Freiermuth was helpful in run-blocking situations, though — particularly on Journey Brown’s 85-yard gain in the first quarter. He shouldered Pitt’s Patrick Jones II, who was in the perfect position to smother Brown in the backfield for a loss, away from danger as the running back dashed upfield.
The sophomore captain is a crucial piece to the Penn State offense, and opposing defenses will have to key on him in order to stifle the Nittany Lion passing attack.
Offensive Line: C-
Pitt’s defensive front bottled up Penn State’s offense for most of Saturday’s game. The Nittany Lions’ front five did pave the way for some explosive plays, but Sean Clifford was forced to make quick throws for the most part as he consistently faced tons of pressure.
One particular play could’ve been disastrous for the Nittany Lions. An unblocked Pitt pass rusher unloaded on Clifford as he went to throw a pass and forced a fumble that the Nittany Lions eventually fell on.
The line improved in the second half — particularly on the 13-play, 88-yard scoring drive in the third quarter — but consistency is key for this position group. The unit has to be able to control the line of scrimmage consistently if Penn State’s offense is going to be successful.
Defensive Line: B
Shaka Toney, Antonio Shelton, and Shane Simmons all put together standout performances in the trenches for Penn State’s defense.
Toney led the position group with five tackles, and he tacked on a sack for good measure against the Panthers. Shelton recorded two solo stops — one of which was for a loss of yardage — and Simmons made a number of key tackles in a backup role at defensive end. Saturday’s game was a bit of a renaissance for Simmons, who missed most of last season with a nagging injury.
Robert Windsor also chipped in a pair of tackles to help stifle Pitt’s rushing attack. Penn State could’ve been much better in terms of rushing the passer with three sacks, but it only allowed the Panthers to gain 24 rushing yards throughout the game.
On a more negative note, Yetur Gross-Matos was nowhere to be seen. The star defensive end didn’t even make a tackle on Saturday — let alone record a sack or make any impact on the Pitt passing attack, which dotted up Penn State’s defense for nearly 400 yards.
Micah Parsons is a bad, bad man, and he proved that yet again on Saturday afternoon. He led the Nittany Lions in tackles with nine and was just generally everywhere on the field throughout the contest. Everyone in Happy Valley knew how special of a talent Parsons was, but he showcased that potential in what was probably his best game as a Nittany Lion so far.
Cam Brown and Jan Johnson both played very well, too. Johnson picked up a key sack of Kenny Pickett in the third quarter before forcing Maurice Ffrench to fumble in the fourth. Johnson said postgame that he believes he fell on the ball despite the referees saying Pitt got it back.
Meanwhile, Brown posted 1.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack along with seven total stops. The senior captain has proven himself as one of Penn State’s most consistent defenders since he took over as a full-time starter last season.
Ellis Brooks also registered a tackle for a loss of yardage, but the starting three really drove play for the Nittany Lions’ defense and stifled Pitt.
Kenny Pickett torched Penn State’s secondary. It seemed like the Panthers’ newly-found emphasis on passing stunned the Nittany Lions, and Pickett finished the afternoon 35-for-51 with 372 passing yards.
Wide receivers Taysir Mack (12 catches for 125 yards) and Maurice Ffrench (eight catches for 43 yards) both played extremely well. Mack, in particular, was probably the best player on the field for either side as he routinely Mossed Penn State’s cornerbacks, including Tariq Castro-Fields and Donovan Johnson.
Castro-Fields made a few big tackles with his signature ability to take down ball-carriers in the open field — including one that blew up a Pitt screen that seemed poised for big yardage — but he has plenty of room for improvement in coverage. John Reid had an uncharacteristically off day that included missed tackles and losses in 1-on-1 situations.
Penn State will face a number of experienced, talented quarterbacks later this year — including Shea Patterson, Justin Fields, and Nate Stanley — so the secondary simply has to be better as Big Ten play begins.
Special Teams: A
Penn State football doesn’t deserve Jordan Stout’s beautiful right boot. He drilled a program-record 57-yard field goal to swing momentum back to the Nittany Lions in the dying moments of the first half, and all of his kickoffs resulted in touchbacks again.
Jake Pinegar didn’t try a field goal, but he buried both of his extra-point attempts. The steady sophomore has made way for Stout in long-distance situations, but James Franklin almost has to use him in those situations is
Blake Gillikin also put together an excellent performance in the punting game. He routinely pinned Pitt back within its own 20-yard line and prevented the Panther offense from getting things going simply by giving them terrible field position to work with.
KJ Hamler wasn’t too effective in the return game (62 combined yards on four total returns), but he didn’t record any momentum-killing turnovers on special teams, either. That’s about all you can ask out of a special teams unit on any given Saturday, so the group earns an A.
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