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Penn State Football’s Passing Game Needs To Spread The Ball Around More

Penn State football boasts an 8-0 record and the No. 5 ranking in both major polls, but there’s always room for improvement within the team. One particular area that could use a boost is in the passing game.

Before I continue, Sean Clifford is having an excellent season for the Nittany Lions. Clifford has completed 134 of his 216 pass attempts (62% completion rate) for 1,931 yards, 20 touchdowns, and three interceptions. His three picks are the fewest among the Big Ten’s starting quarterbacks, and his 8.9 yards per pass attempt rank second in the conference so far this year. These accolades are all great, but mostly leaned on two targets in the passing game.

KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth are undoubtedly stars at the collegiate level, and they’ve carried the load in Penn State’s passing game. They’ve combined for 62 receptions, 911 yards, and 15 out of Clifford’s 20 touchdown passes. The duo is responsible for 46% of the redshirt sophomore’s completions and 47% of his passing yards.

The Nittany Lions definitely have capable weapons outside of their two pass-catching stars — including sophomore Jahan Dotson and redshirt freshman Justin Shorter. Dotson is actually second on the team with 312 receiving yards, but he ranks third behind Hamler and Freiermuth with 17 catches and three touchdowns.

Outside of Dotson, however, none of Penn State’s skill players have more than 10 receptions, which Ricky Slade has out of the backfield.

Oddly enough, Shorter only has nine grabs for 102 yards and no touchdowns this year. It’s not like Shorter has had problems with drops, either. Penn State just hasn’t thrown the ball his way all that often, and it’s showing on the stat sheet. The 6’4″, 235-pound wideout has excellent size and great hands, but he’s rotated in and out of the lineup during games.

Head coach James Franklin said the opposing defense’s alignment and gameplan factors into how the ball is spread around among his team’s receivers prior to the Nittany Lions’ win over Michigan State. Ebbs and flows when it comes to ball distribution are only natural, but it’s definitely odd to see two players dominate a team’s passing attack so much.

At the end of the day, Penn State is undefeated in no small part thanks to Hamler and Freiermuth, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But somebody (read: probably Ohio State) is bound to stop one or both players — even though Hamler is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country — and that would force a change. Teams have already been adjusting to Penn State’s Hamler- and Freiermuth-heavy offense this season.

Penn State’s third-quarter drive that ended in Sean Clifford’s third interception of the year is a perfect example of this. After a pair of Ricky Slade runs gave the Nittany Lions a new set of downs, Clifford tried to find Pat Freiermuth for a gain of four in the flat. The Spartans’ defense did a good job of containing the tight end on the play, before Clifford missed KJ Hamler on second down.

Justin Shorter, Mac Hippenhammer, and Dan Chisena were all on the field at wide receiver on the ensuing 3rd and 6. Clifford, of course, threw undoubtedly his worst pass of the year right into defensive back David Dowell’s arms. That’s not the three receivers’ fault at all, but Michigan State’s ability to contain Penn State’s playmakers combined with good pressure on the quarterback led to a change of possession.

Spreading the ball would take a lot off Hamler and Freiermuth’s shoulders going forward — especially against strong defenses in Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio State. It would also make Penn State’s offense much less predictable and, more importantly, give important pieces like Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter valuable experience going forward.

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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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