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Making Sense Of Penn State Football’s First Four Games Of The 2019 Season

Penn State football made its first huge statement of the 2019 season on Friday night in College Park.

The Nittany Lions took down Maryland 59-0 in their first road game of the 2019 season. Because of the rowdy sell-out crowd and a talented Terrapin squad, many — including myself and several other Onward State staffers — expected Penn State’s Big Ten opener to be a close, cagey affair. The 53,228 fans at Maryland Stadium witnessed, well, anything but a tight contest.

James Franklin’s squad completely outmatched and overpowered the Terrapins throughout Friday’s game, and his team’s performance was a far cry from week 3. Pitt hung tight with Penn State throughout the 100th-ever meeting between the sides, and you can reasonably make the argument that the Panthers were the better team at Beaver Stadium.

The sheer contrast between Penn State’s lackluster performance against Pitt and its commanding win over Maryland make it really difficult to know exactly what this team is. With that in mind, I think these two games represent Penn State’s worst- and best-case scenarios, respectively.


In terms of raw talent, Penn State is a top-15 — and maybe a top-10 — football program in the country. The Nittany Lions are obviously a very young team, so their obvious talent won’t always be on full display due to the general inconsistency that’s only natural for young players. As far as the offense is concerned, discussions of inconsistency have to start and end with the offensive line.

Pitt’s defensive front had an excellent game in week 3 at Beaver Stadium. There were times when blitzing defenders ran straight into Sean Clifford’s pocket with no resistance, and the quarterback was lucky to escape that game without registering a turnover. Clifford took three sacks and three other hits during that game, but that’s not to say the offensive line didn’t have its moments.

The front five paved the way for Journey Brown to pick up 85 of the Nittany Lions’ 167 rushing yards on one play in the first quarter. It was also excellent on the eventual game-winning touchdown drive in the third quarter, which lasted 13 plays and spanned 88 yards in 4:49. The line is obviously talented, and that was on full display in College Park.

Speaking of the run game, Penn State’s by-committee approach has worked fairly well. None of the four running backs’ individual stat-lines jump off the page, but the run game has been really efficient. Journey Brown, Ricky Slade, Devyn Ford, and Noah Cain have all scored at least two touchdowns. Slade, in particular, has struggled with ball security at times, but he played well against Maryland and now has an opportunity to build some positive momentum for himself.

Maryland’s pass rush showed flashes of excellence in its first three games of the year — particularly with a four-sack effort against Syracuse. However, Penn State bottled up the Terrapins and allowed Sean Clifford to do his thing and pass for nearly 400 yards. The Nittany Lions posted 198 yards on the ground in College Park in no small part thanks to the offensive front.

Penn State’s play-calling was also very different in those two games. The offense kept trying to plug a square peg in a round hole by consistently going deep against Pitt. Clifford had pressure in his face for most of the game, so he kept missing his deep shots because of that.

The offensive line wasn’t 100% perfect against the Terps, but Clifford’s excellent execution of short passes and checkdowns was a huge reason why he had a career day. KJ Hamler’s 58-yard touchdown was the end result of a slant pass, Nick Bowers’ 15-yard score came in the red zone, and Journey Brown’s 37-yard touchdown reception was a busted play in which Clifford improvised and found his checkdown outside his collapsed pocket.

We’ve seen the best and worst of Penn State football’s offense through two games, and the biggest question mark going forward will be which version of the team we get. Against most opponents (read: not Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, or Iowa), Penn State is talented enough to get away with sluggish performance and put up points when needed. The team will have to keep making adjustments and allowing Clifford to put the ball in his playmakers’ hands in order to sustain its current level of success.


Meanwhile, the Penn State defense has validated its hype as one of college football’s best through four games played.

In my opinion, only two of the Nittany Lions’ 16 quarters played this season have been particularly poor. Those would be the second quarters against Buffalo and Pitt in which both teams took leads against Penn State. Both teams put together excellent drives in which a touchdown was inevitable, but the most impressive part of Penn State’s defense is how well it responds to adversity.

Penn State has allowed one — yes, one — touchdown in the second half of games this season. That score was a one-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter of the Nittany Lions’ 79-7 win on opening day. The way the defense responded and absolutely clamped down on Buffalo and Pitt in the second half was nothing short of spectacular.

Those second-half performances haven’t been perfect — think Pitt’s two 10-play drives in the fourth quarter — but the “bend, but don’t break” philosophy has worked quite well so far this season. Scoring points against Penn State isn’t easy because the defense has the potential to shut you down on any given possession.

The defense has been phenomenal, but I don’t think it’s been perfect. Lamont Wade hasn’t really stood out in his first four starts at safety, and I’d like to see him blitzing and using his tackling talent more in the box. Speaking of the secondary, the unit got absolutely picked apart against Pitt. However, its ability to bounce back and shut down an experienced quarterback in Maryland’s Josh Jackson was really impressive to me.

Penn State’s linebackers are the heartbeat of the defense, and that doesn’t just come down to Micah Parsons. Parsons is a game-breaking talent, but his ejection against Maryland proved that Jesse Luketa, Ellis Brooks, and Brandon Smith are more than capable of filling his shoes. The front seven as a whole has improved — particularly from Pitt to Maryland after it failed to consistently put pressure on Kenny Pickett.


When Penn State football is on its game, the team is capable of beating the overwhelming majority of its opponents. However, inconsistency has been a big theme throughout the lineup, so exactly how often Penn State can be on its game is a huge question mark.

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About the Author

Mikey Mandarino

In the most upsetting turn of events, Mikey graduated from Penn State with a digital & print journalism degree in the spring of 2020. He covered Penn State football and served as an editor for Onward State from 2018 until his graduation. Mikey is from Bedminster, New Jersey, so naturally, he spends lots of time yelling about all the best things his home state has to offer. Mikey also loves to play golf, but he sucks at it because golf is really hard. If you, for some reason, feel compelled to see what Mikey has to say on the internet, follow him on Twitter @Mikey_Mandarino. You can also get in touch with Mikey via his big-boy email address: [email protected]

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