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Penn State Football’s Mid-Season Report Card

No. 7 Penn State football has reached the midway point of its season as one of the top teams in the nation. The Nittany Lions are ranked as the fourth-best overall defense in the country, are tied for second in total sacks, and have the ninth-best scoring offense.

While all of these statistics are impressive, Penn State’s schedule is only going to get tougher from here. James Franklin’s squad got its first win over a ranked opponent against then-No. 17 Iowa this past Saturday, but the Nittany Lions now have the likes of current AP Top-25 teams Michigan, Ohio State, and Minnesota on the horizon.

With this in mind, here are our grades for Penn State at the halfway point of the season.

Quarterbacks: A-

Considering he is facing the difficult task of replacing three-year starter and Penn State legend Trace McSorley, Sean Clifford’s play has been fantastic up to this point. The redshirt sophomore has completed 102 of his 159 pass attempts for a total of 1,560 yards through the air and 13 touchdowns. This adds up to 15.29 yards per completion, the seventh-best mark in the country.

Clifford’s best game was clearly against Maryland. He threw for 398 passing yards for three touchdowns against the Terps before being replaced by Will Levis in the third quarter.

Clifford’s running ability has also been on full display this season. He’s gained a total of 252 yards per game with his legs — making him the second-leading rusher on the team — for an average of 42 yards per game, to go along with two scores.

The young quarterback’s poise in the pocket has been impressive, as he has only thrown two interceptions to date and has looked confident hitting his receivers.

As for the other quarterbacks on the roster, Levis has gotten time against Idaho, Maryland, and Purdue and has thrown for a touchdown and rushed for two others. Michael Shuster saw time against Idaho, but it was only to kneel out the final seconds.

Running Backs: B

If we were just considering the top half of Penn State’s running back room, this grade would be a lot higher. Up to this point, though, James Franklin has split time among all four of the Lawn Boyz through six games.

That is likely going to change soon.

Noah Cain has clearly been the leader of this group, especially as of late. The true freshman has put together back-to-back 100+-yard performances on the ground against Purdue and Iowa. This weekend, he helped the Nittany Lions dominate the final minutes of both games by consistently eating up yards. He leads all backs with six touchdowns, including a pivotal score late against Iowa.

Journey Brown has also been solid with 233 rushing yards and three touchdowns. His shiftiness and receiving ability out of the backfield will make him a solid pair with Cain, as fans should expect these two to get the bulk of work for the Nittany Lions in the toughest part of their schedule.

Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade have been the two less-productive members of the Lawn Boyz thus far. While Ford has 215 rushing yards on the season and clearly has the speed to explode for big plays, he ‘s struggled to find a rhythm in a crowded backfield.

Slade has been disappointing considering the solid year he had in 2018 behind Miles Sanders. The sophomore has gained only 59 rushing yards this season and only has one game in which he put up double-digit yards on the ground.

Wide Receivers: B+

To no one’s surprise, KJ Hamler has been the leader of an extremely young wide receiver group. The redshirt sophomore leads the team with 455 receiving yards and five touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Hamler had five scores all of last season.

It feels like the Michigan native has made an acrobatic play literally every game, and that’s probably because he’s done just that. His latest highlight came against Iowa when he decided to leap over the entire Hawkeye secondary on his way to the end zone.

Outside of Hamler, though, Penn State’s receivers haven’t been all that impressive.

Jahan Dotson is the only other wide receiver to reach the end zone so far this season. He has three scores along with 261 receiving yards. Two of those touchdowns came in his massive game against Buffalo, in which he had four grabs worth 109 yards.

Dotson has been a fairly reliable target for Sean Clifford so far, while players like Daniel George and Justin Shorter have stepped up a bit. George has four catches for 59 yards on the year, while Shorter has eight grabs for an even 100 yards.

One big surprise this season has been the disappearance of Mac Hippenhammer. After drawing some hype with a fairly productive 2018 campaign, the two-sport athlete has yet to haul in a catch this season.

Tight Ends: B

Pat Freiermuth has led the way for this group through six games. The sophomore is second to only KJ Hamler with 17 receptions on the year for 203 yards and three touchdowns. He had a big-time start to the season, with two touchdowns coming against Buffalo, but his production has slowed as of late.

Nick Bowers has had a bit of success during the last few games, though. The senior has five catches for 136 yards on the season, all of them coming against Maryland and Purdue. He had a 48-yard reception against the Boilermakers and a 55-yard grab against the Terps, along with a touchdown.

Despite Bowers’ recent success, Freiermuth has been a favorite target of Clifford’s this season, especially in the red zone. The quarterback looked to his 6’5″ tight end against Iowa Saturday and hit him on a 16-yard reception that looked to be a touchdown, but was somehow called back by our good friend John O’Neill.

You be the judge of this one.

Offensive Line: B+

The big uglies have had a solid first-half of the 2019 season, but a few mediocre performances are what’s keeping them from an A. The unit has allowed just ten sacks thus far, giving up three in games against Pitt, Buffalo, and Iowa.

While the defensive line competition hasn’t been too impressive compared to what they’ll see against Ohio State and Michigan, Penn State’s solid performance in the run game has been a welcome sight. The Nittany Lions have a total of 1293 rushing yards on the season and have grinded out yards fairly consistently on the ground.

Over the past few games, the offensive line has looked fantastic with Cain in the game. The freshman’s style of staying within the tackles and fighting for extra yards complements Matt Limegrover’s group extremely well.

The group has also been able to avoid injuries well thus far. There are currently no known injuries for any starters on the line as Penn State prepares for the pending onslaught of top-tier Big Ten opponents.

Defensive Line: A

Sean Spencer’s Wild Dogs are clearly one of Penn State’s most impressive position groups. The unit currently sits tied at second in the nation with 27 sacks on the year for a total of 204 yards lost.

Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos lead the group with 5.5 sacks a piece, but the line’s depth is one of its most impressive traits. Robert Windsor now has 2.5 sacks on the year after an impressive performance against Iowa, Jayson Oweh has two, and Adisa Issac has 1.5.

Outside of a shaky performance against Buffalo, this group has been dominant through six games. The Wild Dogs’ best performance came against Purdue when they sacked quarterback Jake Plummer an absurd ten times, the most by a Nittany Lion defense since 1999.

Sacking the quarterback hasn’t been the Wild Dogs only strength thus far. Penn State’s defense has allowed the third fewest 53.8 rushing yards per game, along with just one touchdown. Players like Antonio Shelton, Fred Hansard, and PJ Mustipher have been key in plugging up holes for opposing running backs and stuffing them at the line of scrimmage.

Linebackers: A-

You can’t talk about Penn State’s defense without mentioning this group. In fact, the linebackers also deserve plenty of credit alongside the Wild Dogs for being the third-best rushing defense in the country.

Micah Parsons leads the team with 31 tackles and has legitimately been everywhere on defense. The sophomore’s ability to chase down running backs looking for open space has been important for Penn State’s defensive success all season.

Along with Parsons, Cam Brown has put up an impressive 28 tackles on the season while Jan Johnson has 23 of his own. Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa have also stepped up as second-team players.

Brooks had a huge day against Maryland, finishing with 2.5 sacks and placing himself at the top of the list of most sacks for linebackers this season. Luketa has three pass deflections on the year, which is third on the team and the most for any non-corner back.

Secondary: B

The secondary gets a lower grade simply because of some inconsistencies thus far. The group has allowed a respectable 205 passing yards per game, but most of that comes from their brutal day against Pitt. Kenny Pickett torched Penn State defense for 372 passing yards while completing 35 passes on 51 attempts.

The group had a mediocre day against Iowa’s Nate Stanley, who threw for 286 passing yards. Tariq Castro-Fields and John Reid both got beat on multiple occasions, yielding big gains to the Hawkeyes.

Outside of these two performances, though, Penn State’s secondary has been solid. The group has five interceptions on the year and has allowed just four passing touchdowns. Reid leads the team with two interceptions, one of them being his pick-six against Buffalo.

Lamont Wade has been a star in his own right. He is second on the team with 29 tackles and, similar to Parsons, has been everywhere. The junior has made several big-time tackles in the flat and hasn’t allowed any opposing receivers room to run after making catches. He even had a sack against Purdue.

Special Teams: B+

Penn State’s worst special teams performance of the year came against Purdue when there was a turnover and several other miscues by Joe Lorig’s group. Other than this game, though, there have been plenty of great things to note by the special teams unit.

Blake Gillikin has been a weapon throughout the season. The senior has boomed five of his punts more than 50 yards, is averaging 41 yards per punt, and has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line an impressive 15 times. He came up big in Penn State’s victory over Pitt when he pinned the Panthers six times inside their own 20 and made it nearly impossible for them to sustain drives.

Gillikin’s flow bro Jordan Stout remains our king. Everyone knows about the 53-yard kick against Idaho and the 57-yard bomb just before halftime against Pitt, but possibly even more absurd is the fact that he has gotten touchbacks on 36 of his 44 kickoff attempts.

Jake Pinegar hasn’t been too shabby himself. He’s hit five of his six field goal attempts and has been a model of consistency by nailing all 33 of his extra point attempts.

In terms of the return game, KJ Hamler remains to break out and is averaging only six yards per punt return. His “boom or bust” mentality may be frustrating for plenty of fans as he sometimes loses a significant amount of yards, but I have a feeling that he’ll break off one for a house call within one of these next few games.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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