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Penn State’s Post-Iowa Report Card

Penn State football passed its first true test of the 2019 season when it beat Iowa 17-12 under the lights at Kinnick Stadium.

The Nittany Lions’ defense stifled Kirk Ferentz’s Hawkeyes to move to 6-0 on the season. Iowa managed to gain 356 yards of total offense on Saturday night, but it often had trouble getting anything going thanks to standout performances from Penn State’s defensive line and Blake Gillikin’s phenomenal performance in the punting game.

Here are our grades from Saturday night’s game.

Quarterback: B+

At face value, Sean Clifford’s stat-line isn’t the most flattering. He went 12-for-24 with 117 yards and a touchdown, in addition to 52 rushing yards on 16 carries. Although it wasn’t the flashiest performance of his career, Clifford did exactly what Penn State needed from him.

The redshirt sophomore was clearly nervous and jittery in his pocket on his first couple possessions, and the Penn State offense stalled because of it. However, Clifford settled into the game beautifully and put together a safe, steady, and — most importantly — turnover-free performance.

Clifford took care of the ball extraordinarily well on Saturday. He took a few big hits and didn’t fumble, but he also made smart decisions in the passing game — even though some of his passes weren’t his most accurate. Nate Stanley didn’t take care of the ball, and his late interception to Jaquan Brisker set up Penn State’s eventual game-winning touchdown.

Although Sean Clifford didn’t fill up the stat sheet and dominate the Hawkeyes’ defense, he did everything Penn State could’ve asked of him.

Running Backs: B+

If Noah Cain was the only running back who played for Penn State on Saturday, this position group would easily get an A+.

Cain powered the offense down the stretch by rushing for 102 yards on a season-high 22 carries. He scored a critical, five-yard touchdown to put the Nittany Lions up by 11 with 5:17 to play in the fourth quarter. The true freshman was held to fewer than three yards on only two of his 22 attempts, and he seemed to always find a way to keep the Penn State offense on schedule.

Other than Cain, however, Penn State’s running backs struggled mightily on Saturday night. Journey Brown, Devyn Ford, and Ricky Slade each posted four carries, and they accumulated 17, 16, and eight yards, respectively. Cain out-gained all three of his fellow backs in the fourth quarter alone (67 yards), and his tough running helped Penn State pick up some crucial first downs in the later stages of the game.

Noah Cain needs to be Penn State’s starting running back after Saturday night’s performance.

Wide Receivers: B-

Penn State’s passing game couldn’t get too much going on Saturday night, and it showed based on the wide receivers’ performances.

KJ Hamler was once again Penn State’s top target in the passing game with 61 yards and a 22-yard touchdown on seven receptions. He hasn’t been held without a catch in a single game since he earned a spot in the starting lineup out of training camp last season. But beyond Hamler, the team’s wideouts were very quiet on Saturday.

Jahan Dotson made a nice 13-yard reception in the first quarter and finished with two grabs for 19 yards, and Justin Shorter also pulled down a 12-yard reception in his first game back from injury. None of Penn State’s other receivers made catches on Saturday night, though.

Dan Chisena and Daniel George were the only other wideouts targeted against Iowa on a quiet night in the passing game.

Tight Ends: C+

Pat Freiermuth and Nick Bowers didn’t have too much to do in the passing game for the Nittany Lions on Saturday evening.

Freiermuth made two grabs for 25 yards — one of which was a 15-yarder that was somehow not called a touchdown. Officiating incompetence was one of the game’s biggest storylines, and Freiermuth’s statistics were a victim of that thanks to John O’Neill’s ~skill~.

Nick Bowers didn’t make a grab on his only target of the game, but one interesting note was the use of Penn State’s two-tight end sets — particularly in short-yardage situations. That package was pretty effective in the running game, and combining it with Noah Cain in the backfield could result in some serious success in the running game for the Nittany Lions.

Offensive Line: B+

Sean Clifford was sacked three times against Iowa, but honestly, those sacks boil more down to Clifford’s nerves and indecision early in the game than they do poor offensive line play. Overall, the Nittany Lions’ offensive front was excellent against a strong Hawkeye front seven.

Defensive end Chauncey Golston had a nice game, but the Nittany Lions did very well to contain AJ Epenesa, who’s one of the top defensive ends in the Big Ten. Squaring off against a defensive line as skilled and physical as the Hawkeyes is a tough challenge for anybody, and Penn State’s front seven was definitely up to the task.

The line also paved the way for Penn State to gain 177 yards on the ground throughout Saturday’s game, and the team’s running game secured an absolutely crucial victory for the team in the second half.

Defensive Line: A

Sean Spencer’s Wild Dogs continued to eat up opposing offensive lines on Saturday night.

Robert Windsor had perhaps his best game as a Penn State player on Saturday. He finished the game with six tackles, 2.5 stops for a loss of yardage, and 1.5 sacks. Beyond those basic statistics, Windsor was a force who always seemed to get pressure on Nate Stanley. The defensive tackle’s bone-jarring hit in the backfield forced Stanley to throw the interception that set up Noah Cain’s back-breaking touchdown run.

Beyond Windsor, PJ Mustipher was also excellent. He finished tied for the Penn State lead with seven tackles and forced a fumble that was recovered by Jan Johnson. That fumble led to a Penn State field goal after some refereeing incompetence from John O’Neill and Co.

Yetur Gross-Matos finished the evening with a tackle-for-loss and five total stops, and Shaka Toney combined with Cam Brown for a sack at defensive end. Penn State controlled the trenches throughout Saturday’s game in no small part thanks to the Wild Dogs’ latest feast.

Linebackers: B+

Penn State’s linebackers didn’t have the flashiest game on Saturday, but they were still effective enough to stifle the Hawkeyes.

Cam Brown had yet another solid game for Penn State. He combined for a sack with Shaka Toney and finished the contest with four total tackles. Jan Johnson’s two-tackle output was more modest than some of his other games, but he was the first to react to PJ Mustipher’s forced fumble and pounced on it, which allowed Jake Pinegar to hit a 33-yard field goal.

Micah Parsons and Ellis Brooks each made four tackles against the Hawkeyes, but Jesse Luketa had a quieter day with just one tackle. Although the linebackers had an overall quieter game, the position group did make some crucial plays.

Secondary: B

John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields were burned on more than one occasion during Saturday’s game, but the Penn State secondary still had a strong game overall.

Reid got absolutely Mossed on Brandon Smith’s late touchdown, but he was in great position and got beaten by an incredible effort. Castro-Fields, however, was beaten by good route-running and speed on a pair of plays. In spite of the handful of big plays by Hawkeye receivers, the two still put together overall-solid efforts, including Castro-Fields’ six-tackle day.

Lamont Wade had another great game at safety with seven tackles, and Jaquan Brisker made perhaps the play of the game by intercepting a wayward Nate Stanley pass in the fourth quarter. The pick allowed Noah Cain to rumble and stumble through the Hawkeye defense, which was crucial to securing the victory.

Special Teams: A-

Blake Gillikin was on fire in the punting game for Penn State. Gillikin routinely pinned the Hawkeyes back within their own 20-yard line, and their average starting field position was the 18-yard marker. Poor field position combined with excellent defensive plays by Penn State kept Iowa from developing momentum offensively.

Jake Pinegar converted his only field-goal try of the game from 33 yards out, and he also made both of his extra points. Jordan Stout got back to his usual murdering of footballs, but Iowa’s return men boldly (read: dumbly) elected to take the ball out of the end zone.

KJ Hamler was solid in the punt return game with three attempts for 48 yards. He wasn’t as effective in the kick return game, though, but Penn State’s special teams bounced back excellently after a subpar performance against Purdue.

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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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