Penn State’s Post-Michigan State Report Card

No. 5 Penn State football improved to 8-0 thanks to a 28-7 victory over Michigan State on Saturday.

The game was a sloppy, error-filled affair for both teams at different points in the evening, but ultimately, the Nittany Lions went 1-0 this week yet again. Pat Freiermuth caught three touchdown passes from Sean Clifford, and KJ Hamler also made his team-leading eighth touchdown grab of the year. Meanwhile, the Penn State defense locked up Michigan State, which only managed 265 yards of offense.

Here are our grades for Penn State’s performance at Spartan Stadium.

Quarterback: B+

Sean Clifford made his worst throw of the season in the third quarter of the game. He was flushed out of the pocket and threw what he called “the worst pass of [his] football career” right into the arms of Michigan State’s David Dowell. If you’re going to make a mistake like that, it’s probably best to do it against a team that can’t move the ball while down 28-7. But still, Clifford was annoyed with his mental lapse.

Beyond that, however, Clifford was excellent. He scored four touchdowns for his second game in a row and the third time in Penn State’s last four games. He lived up to the task of throwing the ball 32 times in the pouring rain. It was definitely confusing to see Ricky Rahne consistently ask his quarterback to throw the ball in miserable weather conditions, and Clifford definitely missed some passes. But his overall performance was standout.

Elsewhere, Clifford wasn’t as effective as usual with his legs against Michigan State. He totaled just 11 yards on seven carries throughout the contest.

Running Backs: C

Penn State’s committee of running backs struggled against a stout Michigan State front seven.

Journey Brown was the Nittany Lions’ leading rusher with 45 yards on 12 carries, and he was followed by Devyn Ford and Noah Cain’s 25- and 21-yard outputs, respectively, on six carries each. Cain got the starting nod for the first time in his collegiate career, but he didn’t play after the first quarter due to an injury. James Franklin said that none of the injuries Penn State’s players suffered — presumably including Cain’s — would keep them out of the line-up long-term.

Running the ball should be the name of the game in miserable weather conditions, but Penn State didn’t really lean on it all that much against the Spartans.

Regardless, the passing game worked fairly well for Penn State, so no harm, no foul.

Wide Receivers: B-

The Nittany Lions’ wide receivers had a few drops on Saturday, but ultimately, those probably happened due to the poor weather conditions.

Beyond that, KJ Hamler led the way with 57 receiving yards and a touchdown on five catches. The game was just the second in which Hamler was held to fewer than 60 yards through the air, and he was left unbelievably wide open on his 38-yard touchdown late in the second quarter.

Elsewhere, Jahan Dotson made just two grabs for 14 yards on three targets. His other target was a drop, but again, that’s understandable because of the rain. Justin Shorter made just one grab for nine yards on his only target of the game.

Daniel George also made only one grab for seven yards, and Dan Chisena failed to secure a catch on three separate targets. Chisena was wide open deep for a touchdown on one of those, but he simply dropped the ball. The Nittany Lions’ receivers were asked to do quite a bit given the circumstances in East Lansing, and their overall performance was just fine.

Tight Ends: A+

Pat Freiermuth stole the show with three touchdown grabs against the Spartans. He hauled in a total of five passes for a team-leading 60 yards along with his three scores.

Freiermuth was on the end of a beautiful rainbow ball from Sean Clifford to open the scoring in the first quarter, and he bullied Michigan State’s secondary to find the end zone one quarter later. The tight end was the beneficiary of a well-executed RPO after the Spartans muffed a punt in the second half, and that score capped off the scoring for Penn State.

Elsewhere, Nick Bowers contributed offensively again by totaling 44 yards on two receptions. Both of his catches were the end product of relatively short passes, but Bowers took one of his grabs down the sideline for a gain of 38 yards. He seems to have a knack for breaking off big gains out of seemingly nothing for the Nittany Lions.

Offensive Line: B

When you take Saturday’s statistics at face value (113 rushing yards, two sacks allowed, and six tackles for a loss conceded), they might not seem like the most staggering stat-line. However, Penn State’s offensive front had a strong game in East Lansing.

The team was facing one of the nation’s top front sevens — a unit that includes midseason All-American Kenny Willekes, who was held to just three total tackles and none resulting in a loss of yardage. Other Spartan defenders — including outside linebacker Antjuan Simmons — found their way into the backfield, but the offensive line can take pride in neutralizing one of the nation’s best defensive ends.

Defensive Line: B-

As a unit, Sean Spencer’s Wild Dogs once again didn’t stand out against the Spartans. But one particular Wild Dog — redshirt freshman Jayson Oweh — definitely did.

Oweh made a pair of strip sacks on Brian Lewerke — one of which came on the Spartans’ final Hail Mary pass attempt of the first half. His sack gave Penn State tons of momentum entering the third quarter, and the team used that to quickly force the Spartans into a three-and-out after they received the ball to start the second half.

Beyond that, however, Penn State’s defensive front wasn’t the most impactful on Saturday. Shaka Toney did block a field goal (with his face, by the way) in addition to four tackles on defense. Yetur Gross-Matos made three stops, and Robert Windsor contributed a pair of tackles, as well.

Antonio Shelton finished the contest with just one stop, but he made headlines thanks to his ejection for allegedly spitting on a Spartan player. He publicly apologized for his actions on Twitter following the conclusion of the game.

Linebackers: A-

Micah Parsons is an absolute beast, and he proved that once again by registering a team-leading 12 tackles. The sophomore was just everywhere on defense, and he even came up with a pass break-up to go with his insane, but routine tackle output.

Elsewhere, seniors Cam Brown and Jan Johnson both chipped in six tackles. Johnson in particular has had a quiet season so far, but his performance against Michigan State was a nice reminder of what he’s capable of at the middle linebacker position.

The starting trio of Brown, Johnson, and Parsons once again carried the load among the linebackers in terms of their collective snap count, so depth options like Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa weren’t utilized all that much. Each player recorded just one tackle each during the win.

Secondary: A

It’s hard to give a position group that created two Michigan State turnovers any grade other than an A after its performance.

True freshman Marquis Wilson made five tackles and picked off Brian Lewerke immediately after Sean Clifford threw one. His interception set up Penn State with great field position and a chance to close out the game. Jaquan Brisker continued the quietly-strong season he’s having with another interception — his second of the year. The JuCo transfer from Lackawanna College is tied with established veterans John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields for the team’s lead in picks this year.

Speaking of the cornerbacks, the secondary’s only blemish on Saturday was Castro-Fields getting cooked on a deep route that set up Michigan State’s only touchdown of the afternoon. Aside from that, the junior had a strong game with a pair of pass break-ups and two tackles. Elsewhere, John Reid had a quieter game with just one tackle.

At safety, Lamont Wade made six tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, and a pair of pass break-ups to continue his recent stretch of great form. Garrett Taylor made four tackles, but he didn’t break anything up in the passing game.

Special Teams: A-

Penn State’s special teams had an up-and-down afternoon with many more ups than downs. KJ Hamler had a punt return touchdown wiped off the board due to a holding penalty, and Jesse Luketa ran into the kicker for a penalty that extended a Spartan drive. However, the good definitely outweighed the bad.

Shaka Toney blocked a field goal with his helmet to keep Michigan State off the board, and Blake Gillikin was absolutely phenomenal in the punting game. Five of Gillikin’s eight punts were downed inside the 20-yard line, and the punting unit as a whole deserves all the credit for its effort in downing those balls.

A huge part of why the Spartans couldn’t get anything going offensively was because of their horrible starting field position, which ended up averaging out to their own 19-yard line. The punt team also recovered a muff by the Spartans, which quickly turned into six easy points by Sean Clifford and Pat Freiermuth.

Some may take great special teams play for granted, but it was absolutely crucial for the Nittany Lions in their victory over Michigan State.

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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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