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Attention To Detail, Wide Receiver Depth Key For Penn State Football’s Red Zone Offense After Minnesota Struggles

Penn State football’s normally-efficient red zone offense was uncharacteristically off against Minnesota, and that was a big part of why the team suffered its first defeat of the season last weekend.

Despite marching the ball into Minnesota’s red zone six times, only two of those drives ended in touchdowns. Nick Bowers’ 10-yard receiving score and Journey Brown’s late six-yard dash to the end zone were Penn State’s only successful red-zone trips. The team’s other four drives inside the Gophers’ 20-yard line were capped off by Jake Pinegar field goals, a turnover on downs, and Sean Clifford’s game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter.

Penn State’s red-zone offense was considered one of the team’s strengths entering the Minnesota game. It had scored touchdowns on 24 of its 30 trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, and Pinegar, who’s in charge of kicking field goals from 49 yards or closer, didn’t even see the field against Michigan or Michigan State.

Star tight end Pat Freiermuth thinks Penn State’s key to getting back to successfully scoring in the red zone is simple: attention to detail.

“The field gets small when you get close to the end zone,” Freiermuth said on a conference call with reporters. “There are only so many plays you can run down there with the length of the field. I think it ties back to our execution, making sure we hit our route depth, and making sure we block our guy on the right angle and the right spot.”

Freiermuth mentioned execution, which was a key problem for the offense. When you get down near the goal line, the margin for error tightens. You need to take care of the football when you are in the red zone, and Penn State simply didn’t do that.

One of the issues for Penn State, which could also be a reason for the poor red zone performance, is the wide receivers behind KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson, players such as Justin Shorter, Daniel George, and Dan Chisena. Shorter, in particular, dropped a sure touchdown, but it didn’t end up hurting too much because Nick Bowers found the back of the end zone a few plays later.

Still, head coach James Franklin acknowledged that the receivers behind Hamler and Dotson on the depth chart need to be better.

“They know it. It’s addressed in meetings, and to be honest with you, they’ve been really good in practice and there’s been games where they have been good,” Franklin said Wednesday. “We’ve just been inconsistent at times. It’s what we talk about with all young players. It’s consistency for how they are in meetings, practices, and games.”

He mentioned that these struggles are part of the process for the group and that playing with more confidence and watching film could help it grow.

While the execution was poor, play-calling was also an issue at times in the red zone. Freiermuth finished the game with seven grabs for 101 yards, but his number wasn’t called after Penn State entered the red zone on its final drive of the game. The Nittany Lions also ran fade routes, which are good to run if you’re targeting a big receiver like Freiermuth or Shorter, to KJ Hamler, who’s 5’9″ and 175 pounds. To almost no fault of his own, Hamler couldn’t come up with a pair of fade-route passes because of his smaller stature.

Elsewhere, Sean Clifford threw two interceptions in or near the red zone — one of which was a game-sealing pick late in the fourth quarter. Clifford finished the day with three interceptions and doubled his total for the season on Saturday.

Overall, it was the worst performance of the year for the redshirt sophomore, but his teammates are confident in his ability to bounce back. Pat Freiermuth said Clifford is practicing really hard, and the tight end expects him to have a great game against Indiana.

“I think Sean has played great the whole year,” Freiermuth said. “Other than Minnesota, I think he’s been very ball-secure and has made good decisions. Even in the Minnesota game, he made very good decisions. It may not seem like that, but he still threw for 340 yards, so he was doing something right. I think he has exceeded a lot of expectations, but I think people inside the building knew what to expect from him.”

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About the Author

Gabe Angieri

Gabe is a sophomore majoring in journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He grew up in Lindenhurst, NY and has had the absolute misfortune of rooting for the Jets, Mets, and Knicks. If you want to see his rants on all of his teams follow him on Twitter @gabeangieri and direct all hate mail and death threats to [email protected]

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