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Penn State Football’s 2020 Midseason Report Card

Penn State football has reached the halfway point of its disastrous 2020 regular season, sitting at 0-4 and dead last in the Big Ten standings.

After starting the season off with losses against two tough teams, now-No. 9 Indiana and No. 3 Ohio State, the Nittany Lions were embarrassed by Maryland and outplayed by Nebraska. Penn State has struggled on both sides of the ball, allowing the third-most points per game in the Big Ten and ranking toward the bottom of the conference in points scored.

That said, here are our grades for Penn State at the midway point of the season.

Quarterbacks: D

After impressing last year in his first season as the starter, Sean Clifford has struggled mightily four games into his 2020 campaign. He’s completed just 57% of his passes and has turned the ball over eight times (six interceptions, two fumbles).

Clifford struggled right out of the gate against Nebraska and was benched early in the second quarter in favor of Will Levis. He provided the team with a spark but ultimately completed just 45% of his passes and struggled with accuracy.

However, Levis did make a big play in the fourth quarter when he found Pat Freiermuth for a 74-yard gain.

The Nittany Lions are actually third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game, but the turnovers and the poor completion percentage (third-worst in conference) far outweigh the yardage.

Overall, the quarterback position has been a weakness for Penn State this season and has been one of the major reasons for its struggles on the offensive side of the ball.

Running Backs: C+

Ja’Juan Seider’s running backs were put in a tough position right from the start of the season, and that should be considered when grading this group. The group lost Journey Brown before the season even started and then lost Noah Cain early on against Indiana. Devyn Ford needed to step into the lead spot with true freshmen Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee also taking on key roles.

The running backs are coming off their best game in the loss to Nebraska. Holmes and Lee each set a career-high in rushing yards, and Lee scored his first career touchdown.

However, let’s not forget about the previous two games where the three backs combined for just 111 yards and never really found a groove. Some of that has to do with Penn State going with a more pass-first approach, but the running backs just weren’t effective against Ohio State and Maryland.

Ford has received the majority of the carries (53 attempts for 207 yards) and averaged just 3.9 yards per attempt. Lee and Holmes have both received under 20 carries but have been effective by averaging over five yards per rush.

When you consider the inexperience of the group and the two major losses at the beginning of the season, the three running backs have done a decent job so far this season.

Wide Receivers: B+

The wide receivers have been the best position group for the Nittany Lions this season, and it’s not particularly close. After much uncertainly surrounding the group heading into the season, Taylor Stubblefield’s wideouts have responded in a major way.

Jahan Dotson has solidified himself as a legitimate No.1 receiver with his play so far this season. The junior has totaled 23 catches worth 388 yards and a conference-leading five touchdowns. His 388 receiving yards are the third-most in the Big Ten.

Among Dotson’s five touchdowns is an absurd one-handed grab against Ohio State.

What might be the biggest surprise for Penn State’s wideouts this season is the play of true freshman Parker Washington. The Texas native has stepped up as a formidable No. 2 receiver opposite of Dotson, totaling 19 catches for 223 yards and three touchdowns.

Fellow true freshman KeAndre Lambert-Smith has shown some flashes with his seven catches and 78 receiving yards. Redshirt sophomore Daniel George is the only other receiver to catch a pass this season with his six receptions.

Tight Ends: B

Pat Freiermuth had done a fine job leading Penn State’s tight end group this season. He’s totaled 23 receptions for 310 yards, both of which lead all Big Ten tight ends. He has curiously only scored one touchdown, but much of that can be blamed on Penn State’s red zone woes.

After Freiermuth, though, there’s not much to talk about. Brenton Strange has three receptions for 23 yards and is the only other tight end to catch a pass this season.

Freiermuth is currently on pace to surpass his reception and receiving yardage totals from last season, but breaking his touchdown total of seven seems like a reach.

Offensive Line: D+

The offensive line has been a major disappointment in the first half of the 2020 season.

The Nittany Lions have given up 15 sacks so far, which is four more than any other Big Ten team. While Clifford has been fairly criticized for his poor start to the season, he’s often had to deal with constant pressure from opposing defenses. Penn State’s run-blocking has struggled as well to the tune of 3.8 yards per carry in the running game.

However, the unit’s performance against Nebraska may be a reason for optimism moving forward. Going into the game, Will Fries moved from right tackle to right guard and Caedan Wallace slid in at right tackle. The move appeared to have worked, as Penn State only allowed two sacks and totaled 245 yards in the running game.

Defensive Line: C+

Penn State’s defensive line hasn’t been bad, but it has definitely underperformed to this point. In the running game, John Scott Jr.’s group has been solid, as Penn State is allowing just 125.5 rushing yards per game (fifth-best in Big Ten). Jayson Oweh leads the way with 27 tackles and four tackles for a loss. Shaka Toney and Antonio Shelton have combined for 4.5 tackles for loss as well. Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher has been key in the running game, totaling 21 tackles.

It’s in the pass-rushing category where this group has struggled. As a whole, the defensive line has totaled just five sacks. Toney leads the group with two sacks and Oweh shockingly hasn’t totaled any sacks in the first half of the season. Coming into the season, Oweh had sky-high expectations and was a likely breakout candidate after totaling five sacks in limited playing time last season.

Other defensive linemen Adisa Isaac, Fred Hansard, Judge Culpepper, and Hakeem Beamon have combined for 15 tackles.

Linebackers: B

Penn State’s linebacking core has been the strength of the defense thus far. Ellis Brooks has stood out this season with 31 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, one sack, and one forced fumble. Brooks took over for Jan Johnson this offseason at middle linebacker and has responded by leading the team in tackles at the halfway point.

Brandon Smith has shown some flashes with 16 tackles, three for a loss, two sacks, and an interception. However, Smith’s flashes have sometimes been overshadowed by foolish personal foul penalties that have hurt the defense. Jesse Luketa was suspended for the first half against Ohio State due to a targeting penalty but has played well with 24 tackles, one being for a loss.

Lance Dixon, who started in place of Luketa against Ohio State, has seven total tackles and a forced fumble on the season.

Secondary: C-

It hasn’t been pretty for Penn State’s secondary this season. The group has surrendered big play after big play early on in the season and hasn’t been able to force many turnovers at all. The Nittany Lions’ secondary is responsible for just one turnover all year, a Lamont Wade interception.

The unit has surrendered 230.5 passing yards per game, which isn’t bad, but it’s ultimately the big plays that have been demoralizing. The secondary got torched by Justin Fields and Ohio State and was then torn apart by Taulia Tagovailoa in the first half the following week.

Jaquan Brisker leads the secondary with 24 tackles and is tied for the team lead with two passes defended. First-year starter Joey Porter Jr. has had a solid season thus far, totaling 15 tackles, one sack, and one pass defended.

While it hasn’t all been negative, the lack of turnovers and the problems with big plays leave this group with room for improvement in the second half of the season.

Special Teams: C

Penn State’s special teams unit has had its fair share of ups and downs in the first half of the season. The group has struggled with field goals, going just 5-10 (50%), which ranks towards the bottom of the conference. Jake Pinegar started off the season poorly against Indiana with two missed field goals but has missed only one since. Jordan Stout has converted on 1-3 of his field goals, with all of them coming from 50+ yards.

Another area of struggle for the group is kickoff returns. The Nittany Lions average 15.1 yards per kick return, which is the third-worst mark in the Big Ten.

Stout ranks right in the middle of the pack with a punt average of 42.6 yards per punt, and of course has been consistent with touchbacks on kickoffs.

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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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