Penn State’s Post-Minnesota Report Card
No. 9 Penn State football suffered its first loss since last season’s Citrus Bowl in a 31-26 defeat at the hands of No. 7 Minnesota Saturday afternoon.
The Nittany Lions’ performance was riddled with errors by both players and coaches, but the team still had a chance to take a lead in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. Sean Clifford threw his third interception of the game with 1:01 to play, which allowed Minnesota to run out the clock and secure its biggest victory in recent program history.
Here’s our evaluation of Penn State’s performance in Minneapolis. Let’s just say if this report card were real, Penn State football would be academically ineligible.
Sean Clifford had undoubtedly his worst game as Penn State’s starting quarterback. He threw three interceptions — two of which led to Minnesota touchdowns and another that sealed the Nittany Lions’ fate.
Although the turnovers will obviously be many fans’ main takeaway from the game, he did do plenty of good things. The redshirt sophomore finished 23-for-43 with 340 yards and a touchdown along with the three turnovers. He made plenty of excellent throws and looked confident in front of a strong offensive line, which did very well to protect him for most of the game. Minnesota did log a few coverage sacks over the course of the game, but Clifford had time to grill a steak on some of his best throws of the day.
Saturday’s game was also the first time Clifford threw more than 40 passes in a game for Penn State, but his three mistakes were just too much to overcome.
Running Backs: C
Penn State got away from its running backs-by-committee approach for the first time all season, but the team simply didn’t put the ball on the ground enough.
Journey Brown had his best game of the season with a career-high 124 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. The Nittany Lions didn’t utilize the run game enough against the Golden Gophers, and productive four-to-six-yard gains seemed inevitable every time Penn State ran the ball.
Brown played well, but he was the only Penn State running back to put up a strong performance. Ricky Slade managed just one reception for no gain, and he made the wrong read after catching a screen pass when the Nittany Lions went for two in the third quarter. Losing out on those points proved costly, as Penn State had to go for the end zone instead of being able to send the game to overtime with a field goal.
Devyn Ford posted nine yards on three carries, and Noah Cain didn’t play. Cain dressed for the game, but he didn’t fully participate in warm-ups or get a single snap in the game due to the injury he suffered against Michigan State.
Wide Receivers: C
KJ Hamler once again shined for Penn State, but he was the only receiver who had a big day for the Nittany Lions. Hamler led the team with 119 receiving yards on seven grabs — his fourth 100-yard game of the season.
Jahan Dotson put up 70 yards on three receptions, Dan Chisena caught a pass for 20 yards, and Daniel George pulled down one ball for an eight-yard game. Penn State did a little better in terms of spreading the ball around, but the receivers definitely had their struggles against the Gophers.
Drops were a noticeable issue for the first time all season. Justin Shorter dropped a sure touchdown early in the game, and Daniel George had a few missed catches as well. The Nittany Lions’ pass-catchers have been relatively sure-handed this year, and it’s entirely possible that this game serves as a one-off in an otherwise solid season for the wideouts.
Shorter didn’t make a single grab, and he missed an opportunity to break up Antoine Winfield’s first interception of the game. The 6’4″, 215-pound wideout lost a 50-50 ball to Winfield, who’s five inches smaller and 25 pounds lighter than him. That was Clifford’s first touchdown of the game and set up Minnesota’s first touchdown of the day, ultimately setting the tone for afternoon.
Tight Ends: A
Penn State’s offense was truly at its best when Pat Freiermuth was heavily involved, and the sophomore showed his worth with seven grabs for 101 yards.
The Nittany Lions didn’t go to Freiermuth once during their last few plays of the game. I’m not saying a pass to the tight end would’ve guaranteed a touchdown, but calling his number in the red zone is far more likely to work than some of the other options Penn State used — including two fade routes to KJ Hamler.
Elsewhere, Nick Bowers was on the receiving end of Sean Clifford’s only touchdown of the game. That 10-yard score was Bowers’ only grab of the game, but it brought Penn State back within a score late in the third quarter. Both tight ends were also very helpful in terms of run-blocking to help create space for the backs to work with.
When their numbers were called, Penn State’s tight ends delivered against the Golden Gophers.
Offensive Line: A-
Aside from a few coverage sacks, Penn State’s offensive line played very well in both run- and pass-block situations. The unit consistently bullied Minnesota’s front seven and allowed the Nittany Lions’ playmakers time and space to make things happen.
The Nittany Lions posted 518 total yards of offense, which is definitely a feather in the offensive line’s cap. Journey Brown’s excellent game on the ground happened in no small part thanks to the front five, and Sean Clifford had lots of time to work with on many of his pass attempts.
Although it might not get the most press, Penn State’s offensive line has collectively had a strong season — especially considering the quality of opposition it routinely faces in the Big Ten.
Defensive Line: D-
Sean Spencer’s Wild Dogs failed to consistently disrupt the line of scrimmage against Minnesota.
Tanner Morgan had all day to survey the field and go through his progressions, which is part of why he went 18-for-20 with 339 yards and a hat trick of touchdowns. Granted, the unit had a daunting assignment in Minnesota’s large offensive line, and one positive to take away from the unit’s performance is the lack of Minnesota’s run game.
Rodney Smith, who’s third in the Big Ten behind JK Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor in rushing yards this year, was held to just 51 yards on the ground. The Gophers rattled off a few chunk plays in the run game, but overall, Penn State’s defensive line was up to the task against the run.
Micah Parsons once again proved his athleticism by posting a team-leading 11 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, and the Nittany Lions’ only sack of the game. Parsons is truly one of the most talented linebackers in all of college football, and he has proven the consistency to string together standout performance after standout performance.
Elsewhere, Jan Johnson came up with a team-leading three tackles for loss and 10 stops of his own, while Cam Brown made six tackles throughout the game. Johnson has had a quieter year at middle linebacker, but he seemed to be everywhere and constantly involved against the Gophers.
Penn State’s backups at the position weren’t as impactful. Ellis Brooks made two tackles, and he was the only backup to appear on the stat sheet. Minnesota found success on early screen passes, but the unit adjusted well and corralled these later in the game.
The linebackers’ lack of an impact in the pass rush was also apparent throughout the afternoon, but overall, the unit had an above-average day.
Penn State’s secondary struggled at times during the team’s 8-0 start to the year — particularly against Pitt and in the first half against Buffalo — but the unit was flat-out exposed by Tanner Morgan.
Morgan completed 18 of his 20 pass attempts for 339 yards and three touchdowns — all of which were avoidable. Rashod Bateman’s 66-yard score in the first quarter was a walk-in touchdown thanks to a blown assignment, Chris Autman-Bell weaved through Penn State’s secondary after taking a screen pass, and Tyler Johnson torched Keaton Ellis in a 1-on-1 situation.
Part of Minnesota’s success in the passing game boils down to the offensive line protecting him very well. It felt like Minnesota was about to gain 15-to-20 yards every time Morgan zipped the ball downfield. The unit will need to make some serious adjustments going forward.
The only positive from the unit was Keaton Ellis and Lamont Wade’s forced fumble, which Penn State quickly turned into six points.
Special Teams: B+
Penn State’s special teams performance was fine, but the unit wasn’t particularly busy.
Blake Gillikin punted the ball twice for a combined 95 yards, and Jake Pinegar was a perfect 4-for-4 on his extra points and field goal attempts. KJ Hamler didn’t have a spectacular day in the return game — including a near-disastrous muffed punt that he shouldn’t have even thought about touching — but he also didn’t actively hurt the team with poor returns.
Egregious special teams play wasn’t the main reason why Penn State lost. It didn’t ruin any of Penn State’s chances to win the game, which is all you can ask for from the unit.
There were several coaching decisions with which fans and analysts disagreed throughout this weekend’s game.
Why did the offense try not one, but two fade routes to KJ Hamler in the red zone? Why was Sean Clifford so heavily leaned on despite the run game’s success? Why wasn’t Pat Freiermuth or Nick Bowers targeted more in the red zone? Where were the coverage and blitzing adjustments while Minnesota jumped out to a two-possession lead in the first half?
Although those choices were questionable, the team’s decisions to kick a field goal at the end of the first half and to go for a two-point conversion in the third were understandable. They might look bad in hindsight — particularly the latter — but they were both the absolute correct decisions at their respective points in the game.
Penn State would’ve entered halftime down 14 with no momentum and Minnesota getting the ball to start the third quarter if it had gone for it instead of taking three points. Pinegar’s field goal took a little bit of the air out of TCF Bank Stadium and gave the Nittany Lions some traction. Going for two while down five points is simple math, and Ricky Slade simply didn’t execute.
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About the Author
Bryce Jordan Stevenson is a Penn State junior whose name may or may not sound a bit familiar to you.
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