Penn State’s Post-Maryland Report Card
That was an, uh, eventful Big Ten opener.
No. 12 Penn State football smacked Maryland 59-0 on Friday night in College Park. The Nittany Lions couldn’t have asked for a better opening to conference play, and they dominated every facet of the contest. Sean Clifford posted a career-high 398 passing yards and three touchdown passes, leading the way for the Nittany Lions, who out-gained Maryland 619-128.
As you might expect, our grades of Penn State’s performance are fairly decent.
It’s safe to say that Sean Clifford had his best game as a Nittany Lion on Friday night.
Clifford bounced back from a shaky outing against Pitt by going 26-for-31 with 398 yards and four total touchdowns. He also threw an interception, but that came down to Maryland safety Nick Cross making an unbelievable play on a well-thrown deep ball. He picked apart the Maryland defense throughout the game, and he also got plenty of help from an excellent night by the wide receivers.
Clifford made way for Will Levis in the third quarter, and he put together his best performance as a Nittany Lion as well. Levis posted 38 rushing yards and two scores on six carries, and he went 3-for-8 through the air for 23 yards. The redshirt freshman looked like Tommy Stevens on his first touchdown run after bullying the Terrapin defense on his way to paydirt.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Clifford’s performance was how well he managed to bounce back from a somewhat sloppy performance against Pitt. He made plenty of adjustments and did a brilliant job of allowing his playmakers to, well, make plays.
Running Backs: A-
Penn State’s committee of running backs posted a total of 130 yards on 27 carries. All four players had productive spells throughout the game, and they also did a nice job of factoring into the passing game for Penn State.
Journey Brown got the starting nod, but he posted the second-fewest amount of rushing yards (21 on five carries) for the Nittany Lions. He, however, did register a 37-yard touchdown reception on a busted play in which Sean Clifford was forced out of the pocket.
Ricky Slade has his best game of the year with 28 yards and a score on eight carries. He didn’t fumble the ball after having some trouble with ball security throughout the first few games of the year, but there were no issues in that department on Friday.
As far as the true freshmen are concerned, Devyn Ford and Noah Cain both played well. They combined for 60 yards on 14 carries and 24 yards on two receptions. The most notable development from Friday’s game, however, was the fact that it was their fourth game played. If Ford and Cain play again (spoiler alert: they will), they’re no longer eligible to receive a redshirt this season.
Wide Receivers: A
Penn State’s wide receivers balled out against Maryland, and KJ Hamler was at the forefront of the unit’s success. Hamler led the Nittany Lions with six catches for 108 yards and a 58-yard touchdown. The shifty wideout juked Maryland back into the ACC with a gorgeous hop-step and hesi before using his speed to burn the Terrapins’ secondary.
Beyond Hamler, Cam Sullivan-Brown had an excellent game in his home state. He hauled in five balls for 35 yards and became one of Sean Clifford’s more reliable options in the middle stages of the game.
Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter had quieter days, but six different wideouts made catches for the team. Shorter was injured on a hard, late hit in the first quarter and didn’t return to the game, and his status for the upcoming weeks is currently unclear. Elsewhere, Dan Chisena made his first career reception on a 40-yard deep shot, and Isaac Lutz also hauled in his first catch, which was a 15-yarder.
Beyond actually catching the ball, Penn State’s receivers locked in in terms of downfield blocking on Friday. Hamler’s sweet moves may have stolen the show on his 58-yard touchdown, but it wouldn’t have been possible without a crucial block from Jahan Dotson. Daniel George — who didn’t make a reception in his return from a hand injury — also gave Journey Brown a key downfield block on his 37-yard score.
Tight Ends: A-
Pat Freiermuth had a quieter day with just two catches for 22 yards, but Nick Bowers stole the show for the Nittany Lions’ tight end group.
Bowers hauled in two passes as well, but one of them was a career-long 55-yarder. He took a mid-range pass from Sean Clifford and turned it into a huge gain by rumbling and stumbling right through the heart of the Terrapins’ secondary. Bowers’ other reception was a 15-yard touchdown — the third of his Penn State career and his first of the 2019 season.
Penn State has gotten used to strong tight end play over the past few years, and the Freiermuth-Bowers duo really does have the potential to be one of the best in the Big Ten. Although their four catches may not pop off the page, the two players once again played really well in the blocking game, too.
Freiermuth was helpful on Journey Brown’s 37-yard touchdown pass, and the position group helped the team rush for a total of 198 yards.
Offensive Line: A
Sean Clifford took just one hit and didn’t get sacked on Friday night, so there’s no reason to complain about the offensive line’s performance against Maryland.
The unit dominated the line of scrimmage throughout the game, and the Nittany Lions really just walked all over Mike Locksley’s side throughout. An output of 198 rushing yards and 421 passing yards is nothing to scoff at, and the offensive line truly did pave the way for that.
Like many of Penn State’s position groups, the offensive line bounced back well from a rough outing against Pitt and imposed its will on the Terrapins.
Defensive Line: A-
For the first time all year, Yetur Gross-Matos truly looked like the Yetur Gross-Matos who was billed as a potential top-10 draft pick this offseason. He finished tied for second among the Nittany Lions with five tackles — two of which resulted in a loss of yardage. Gross-Matos, however, was held without a sack for the second consecutive game.
Shaka Toney had a quieter evening, but players like Adisa Isaac and Shane Simmons put together strong performances. Isaac had his best game as a Nittany Lion by registering 1.5 sacks, 2.5 TFLs, and four total tackles, and Simmons recorded three stops while playing in his home state.
Penn State’s defensive tackles had statistically quiet evenings, but Sean Spencer’s position group managed to stuff the Terrapins’ offense and consistently get to the quarterback. The team recorded four sacks and three hits on Josh Jackson and Tyrrell Pigrome throughout the game and held Maryland to just 60 yards on the ground.
It definitely wasn’t the worst day at the office for the Wild Dogs.
Micah Parsons’ early ejection for targeting was the only blemish on what turned out to be a great night for Penn State’s linebackers.
Jan Johnson recorded his first career interception in the first quarter, and his 17-yard return set up Sean Clifford for his first rushing touchdown of the year. Johnson made a nice read and cut off Josh Jackson’s passing lane beautifully to set the tone early on Friday.
Ellis Brooks also had himself a big game for the Nittany Lions with a team-leading six tackles and 2.5 sacks. Jesse Luketa got the chance to showcase his skills in Parsons’ absence, and he imposed his will on Maryland’s offense with five tackles. Cam Brown made three tackles, and Brandon Smith made two.
Penn State’s linebackers have been the strength of the defense through four games played, and they showed no signs of slowing down against the Terps.
Penn State’s defense really only had one bad drive on Friday night, but it was cut short by an interception by Maryland native Tariq Castro-Fields.
Castro-Fields high-pointed Josh Jackson’s pass to the end zone and punished the quarterback’s poor decision. He probably should’ve just gone down in the end zone, but Penn State scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
State College native Keaton Ellis also made a highlight-reel play when he ripped the ball out of Maryland running back Tayon Fleet-Davis’ arms in the fourth quarter. He forced the fumble that set up Will Levis’ second rushing touchdown of the game.
At the end of the day, Josh Jackson was limited to just 65 passing yards after putting up more than 700 in his first three starts as Maryland’s quarterback. A lot of that may come down to the defensive front generating lots of pressure on him, but the secondary consistently locked down receivers and made plays on Friday evening.
Special Teams: A
Is Jordan Stout okay? For the first time in his Penn State career, not all of his kickoffs were touchbacks, and he missed a 52-yard field goal wide right. For the record, that field goal try definitely had the leg to split the uprights.
Two of Stout’s kickoffs were returned, but Penn State’s special teams unit managed to stuff them short of the 25-yard line. Even the Tom Bradys and Saquon Barkleys of the world have off days, and I think Stout will get back to murdering footballs routinely next week.
Blake Gillikin wasn’t all that busy with just three punts that totaled 123 yards. He recorded a punt of more than 50 yards for the third consecutive game after a subpar first kick of the evening. Jake Pinegar converted all of his extra-point attempts and also made a 21-yard chip shot for the Nittany Lions.
KJ Hamler didn’t get a single yard in the return game, but Jahan Dotson showcased his value as a nice backup option with a 30-yard punt return.
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