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Penn State’s Post-Michigan Report Card

No. 6 Penn State football escaped Beaver Stadium with a crucial 28-21 victory over No. 19 Michigan on Saturday night.

The Nittany Lions secured their 15th consecutive winning season with the win, and the game was played under White Out conditions. Sean Clifford threw three touchdown passes and added another score on the ground, and Micah Parsons made a game-high 14 tackles for Penn State.

It wasn’t a perfect Penn State performance by any means, but at the end of the day, James Franklin’s program did just enough to go 1-0 this week. Here are our grades for the team’s performance Saturday night:

Quarterback: A-

Sean Clifford once again didn’t put up the gaudiest numbers in terms of yardage or completions. Clifford went 14-for-25 with 182 yards, but he truly earned a high grade for his performance because of his four total touchdowns and ability to take care of the football.

The redshirt sophomore took advantage of Michigan’s bizarre choice to guard KJ Hamler 1-on-1 by dropping two absolute dimes right in his breadbasket for scores.

My only gripe with Clifford’s game was his inability to sustain drives and get much of anything going in the second half. His 53-yard touchdown to Hamler in the fourth quarter was Penn State’s only scoring drive of the second half, and the offense was smothered by a solid Michigan defense throughout.

Despite that, Clifford’s been phenomenal when it comes to taking care of the football so far this season. He put together another turnover-free performance against Michigan — his second consecutive one against a ranked opponent. As evidenced by Tariq Castro-Fields’ interception that was quickly turned into seven points, turnovers completely turn the tide of huge games like this. Clifford didn’t give Michigan any chances to score free points, and that was the difference on Saturday.

Running Backs: C

Penn State’s running backs had trouble getting things going on Saturday. Ricky Slade finished the game as the Nittany Lions’ leading rusher with 48 yards on three attempts, but 44 of those came on one carry. Journey Brown and Noah Cain each totaled 19 yards on four and five carries, respectively.

The fact that Cain only had the ball in his hands six times — including a three-yard reception — is criminal considering the form he was in entering the game. James Franklin did, however, trust his true freshman on Penn State’s final drive after the defense’s goal-line stand, and he picked up seven yards on two carries before KJ Hamler finished off Michigan with a four-yard run on 3rd and 3.

One area in which Penn State’s running backs were strong was on blitz pick-ups. Michigan ran a number of exotic blitzes that the running backs quickly sniffed out, and Sean Clifford was only sacked twice on Saturday as a result. However, Penn State will need more out of its ground game in order to continue winning games.

Wide Receivers: B-

KJ Hamler was excellent once again for Penn State on Saturday night. Good things seemed to happen whenever he had the ball in his hands, which was evidenced by his six-catch, 108-yard, and two-touchdown performance. He’s now crossed the 100-yard mark three times this season, and he’s been held below 60 yards just once this year.

On top of his excellent game out wide, Hamler made the game-clinching play late in the fourth quarter. Michigan was expecting the Penn State offense to hand the ball off to Noah Cain for the third straight play, but Hamler came dashing in motion to take a handoff and bull forward for four yards on 3rd and 3. That first down forced Michigan to drain its final timeout of the evening and allowed Penn State to kneel the clock out.

Beyond Hamler, however, Penn State’s wide receivers didn’t make too much of an impact on Saturday. Jahan Dotson made a 37-yard grab right before Pat Freiermuth opened the scoring with a touchdown catch, but that was his only reception of the contest. Justin Shorter wasn’t even targeted on Saturday, which left Hamler and Dotson as Penn State’s only two pass-catchers at wideout.

Part of the receivers’ collective lack of success may have been down to the offense’s poor flow and reliance on explosive plays. Regardless, spreading the ball around more definitely won’t hurt the Nittany Lions going forward.

Tight Ends: B

Pat Freiermuth was the only Penn State tight end to make a reception on Saturday night. He caught three passes for 28 yards and the evening’s first touchdown.

Freiermuth took advantage of 1-on-1 coverage against a linebacker (pro tip: that’s not a good idea) to open the scoring, but Michigan adjusted well and essentially made the sophomore a non-factor in Saturday’s game after that.

Nick Bowers was a non-factor in the passing game as well, but he did contribute to some of Penn State’s run-blocking looks throughout the game. Bowers has shown flashes in the passing games at times this year, but Penn State was missing that element on Saturday night.

Offensive Line: B-

Michigan’s front seven was excellent against Penn State’s run game, but it only managed to record two sacks. Those numbers are a bit deceiving, though, as Clifford was forced into one-yard or losses of yards in the run game four times on Saturday, so he definitely took his fair share of hits.

Elsewhere, the Penn State rushing attack couldn’t really get much going on Saturday night. It finished the night with just 101 yards on the ground, and the Wolverines’ defensive front definitely deserves credit for shutting down the Nittany Lions for most of the evening.

Although the offensive line’s performance was up and down on Saturday, it managed to play a big role in helping the Nittany Lions clinch a huge victory late in the fourth quarter. The line paved the way for Noah Cain and *checks notes* KJ Hamler to power forward for yardage and run out the clock.

Defensive Line: C-

Sean Spencer’s Wild Dogs came back to Earth a little bit after combining for 12 sacks and 20 tackles-for-loss in the past two weeks. The Nittany Lions only sacked Shea Patterson once and took Michigan playmakers down for a loss of yardage three times.

The defensive line was held without a sack in this game. Garrett Taylor sacked Patterson in the third quarter, but none of the Wild Dogs got to Michigan’s quarterback. Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos combined for the defensive linemen’s only tackle for a loss in what was a rough outing overall.

Although the line struggled to make an impact on Saturday, Toney and Gross-Matos both had strong overall games. They made seven and five tackles, respectively, Robert Windsor also made four tackles up front, but the team will need to see some improvement up front defensively against Michigan State.

Linebackers: B+

Elsewhere, Penn State’s linebackers were phenomenal. Micah Parsons proved that he just might be the most talented player on the Penn State defense by leading all tacklers with 14 stops against Michigan. His rare combination of speed, size, and near-perfect tackling fundamentals were all on display throughout the game.

Cam Brown also had a strong game for Penn State. He made 10 tackles and was also flying around the field on Saturday. Brown hasn’t had the best season by any means — including three consecutive lower-tackle performances against Maryland, Purdue, and Iowa — but he looked like the Cam Brown who has game-wrecking potential this weekend.

Jan Johnson had another quiet game at middle linebacker with just two stops, and Penn State’s depth at the linebacker position didn’t really make too much of an impact on Saturday. Ellis Brooks made two stops, and Jesse Luketa made just one tackle for the Nittany Lions in a back-up role.

Penn State leaned on its starting trio of Brown, Johnson, and Parsons more than it has all season on Saturday. Those three players delivered and helped the Nittany Lions pick up a crucial victory on one of college football’s grandest stages.

Secondary: B+

Shea Patterson played really well against Penn State’s secondary, which conceded 276 passing yards to the Wolverines on Saturday. However, the Nittany Lions’ corners and safeties epitomized the “bend, but don’t break” clichĂ© against Michigan.

For every screen pass that Donovan Peoples-Jones and Nico Collins took for an unnecessarily big gain, there was a huge play from the secondary. Tariq Castro-Fields intercepted a screen pass to set up a drive that ended with a Penn State touchdown, and Lamont Wade made an excellent read that helped Patterson’s 4th-and-goal pass attempt fall harmlessly to the turf.

Say what you want about Ronnie Bell dropping a catchable pass, but Wade knew he was running a slant there. If he got beat by a fairly simple route, Bell scores the easiest touchdown of his life to send this game to overtime. That’s not to mention Wade’s eight tackles and the tremendous form he’s in entering Penn State’s trip to East Lansing.

John Reid quietly made six tackles and picked up one of Penn State’s three tackles for a loss on Saturday evening, and Garrett Taylor notched his first career sack, which was also Penn State’s only one of the game.

Special Teams: A-

Aside from a few Blake Gillikin shanked punts, Penn State put together a great special teams performance against the Wolverines. All was right in the world as Jordan Stout got back to destroying footballs through the back of the end zone routinely, and Gillikin’s non-rugby punts were all absolute bombs.

Jake Pinegar was a perfect 4-for-4 on extra points, and KJ Hamler rattled off a 40-yard punt return for Penn State. Hamler also took a kickoff 100 yards to the crib, but that was wiped off due to penalties. Still, he showcased his absurd speed by traveling the length of the field in 11 seconds.

Elsewhere, at least one game ball needs to go to senior wideout Dan Chisena, who was only put on scholarship at the 2019 Blue-White game. Chisena made a pair of huge tackles on punt returns that pinned Michigan back in less-than-ideal field position.

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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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