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Penn State Football’s Post-Michigan Report Card

Penn State football actually won a game, folks!

The Nittany Lions earned their first win at Michigan Stadium since 2009 Saturday by taking down Jim Harbaugh’s squad 27-17. Penn State led throughout the contest and even held its first halftime lead of the season.

James Franklin’s squad is still an ugly 1-5, but Saturday’s win was a strong performance by just about every position group. Here are our grades for the Nittany Lions following their first win of the 2020 season:

Quarterbacks: B+

This was easily Sean Clifford’s best performance of the 2020 campaign so far. He didn’t hit on any pretty deep balls or rush for triple-digits, but the redshirt junior didn’t turn the ball over — something he hadn’t done all year..

Clifford already has eight interceptions on the season and committed at least one turnover in each of Penn State’s first five games. That’s particularly ugly considering the fact he threw just seven picks in the entire 2019 season but on Saturday, Clifford was extremely careful and efficient with the football.

“I think the biggest thing is obviously no turnovers,” James Franklin said postgame. “That’s been the issue that’s we’ve been battling and working through all year long.”

Clifford completed 17 passes worth 163 yards against the Wolverines and even rushed for 73 yards and a touchdown on nine attempts. He also took just one sack.

The Cincinnati native’s only score of the day came on a pretty 28-yard designed rush. The touchdown capped off what was a strong eight-play, 76-yard drive.

Along with Clifford, Will Levis capitalized on the opportunities he got. The big fella picked up a massive first down for the Nittany Lions to help run out the clock late and scored a touchdown to put Penn State up by two possessions in the final minutes.

Levis didn’t attempt a pass but finished the day with 25 yards on six carries.

Running Backs: A

Devyn Ford was unavailable Saturday due to a death in his family, so expectations weren’t extremely high for an extremely inexperienced group of rushers. Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes stepped up in a big way, however, and at times carried the load for Penn State’s offense.

Lee was a force for the Nittany Lions throughout the day. He finished the game with a team-leading 134 yards on 22 attempts. That’s the most yards by a Penn State true freshman running back since Saquon Barkley’s 194 against Ohio State in 2015.

The Clearwater, Florida native also got the scoring going for Kirk Ciarrocca’s offense with a touchdown on the opening drive — the second of his Nittany Lion career.

Lee also had two big carries of more than 20 yards and was key in running the clock down to close out the Wolverines. Holmes, on the other hand, had a solid 34 yards on 10 attempts. The two true freshmen combined with Levis and Clifford for a season-high 254 total yards on the ground.

“[Keyvone Lee] did a really good job of hitting [the holes] when they were there, and then bouncing it when he had to too,” Clifford said postgame. “We have a lot of trust in both [Keyvone] and [Caziah Holmes]. I’m excited for them and their futures here.”

Wide Receivers: B+

There weren’t many huge plays for Penn State’s wide receivers Saturday, but Parker Washington was a consistent target for Sean Clifford all day.

Washington was yet another example of a true freshman who played a huge role for the Nittany Lions’ offense, as he led the team with nine catches for 93 yards. The Texas native was targeted 11 times and showed off his ability to make plays in the open field on multiple occasions.

On his first catch of the day, Washington broke a few tackles and went 20 yards into Michigan territory to help spark Penn State’s opening drive.

No one else had a huge day besides Washington, but Isaac Lutz did get involved in the passing game for the first time this season. The redshirt senior hauled in three catches worth 30 yards, while Jahan Dotson did exactly the same. Dotson made two catches in the fourth quarter that helped Penn State move the chains on third down.

Tight Ends: C

Penn State’s tight ends didn’t make any glaring mistakes, but they didn’t add much of any value to the offensive effort, either.

Theo Johnson didn’t catch a pass in his first career start, while Brenton Strange had just one grab worth four yards. Strange added value as a blocker on multiple plays, but neither player made much of any noise from a receiving standpoint.

Offensive Line: A-

Penn State’s hog mollies up front had themselves a day. The group didn’t have any penalties called on them, allowed just one sack, and paved the way for the Nittany Lions’ rushers for a season-high 254 yards.

It helped that the offense executed on mainly quick passes to protect Clifford, but that doesn’t change the fact that Saturday’s game was a refreshing sight for an offensive line that has struggled this season. Along with just one sack for Michigan defense, the group hurried Clifford just twice and had only one other tackle for loss.

Defensive Line: B-

It wasn’t a banner day for Brent Pry’s defensive line, but the group did enough to earn a B- on the day.

The only time Michigan could get anything going on offense was through the ground game, as the big guys up front struggled at times to slow down Hassan Haskins and Chris Evans. Haskins had 101 yards on the ground and two scores on 17 attempts, while Evans managed a strong 35 yards on only four carries.

The group couldn’t sack quarterback Cade McNamara but did hurry him twice and force three tackles for loss. PJ Mustipher led the group with five total tackles, while Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh both broke up passes.

The play of the day for the group came when Toney and Jaquan Brisker combined to stuff Joe Milton on 4th and short to help ice the game.

Linebackers: B+

While they couldn’t consistently stop the run at times, Penn State’s linebackers all did their jobs at the Big House Saturday.

Ellis Brooks led the team with six total tackles, while Brandon Smith added five, and Jesse Luketa had four. Smith also had one tackle for loss, while Brooks and Luketa each made key tackles to help stop the Wolverines on 3rd and short situations.

Considering the struggles Penn State has had in open-field tackling and limiting big plays, the linebacking core’s effort on Saturday was a welcomed sight.

Secondary: A

A lot of Penn State’s success in the secondary can be put on the fact that Michigan just isn’t that good, but when you’re winless entering week six, who cares?

The group did exactly what it needed to against the Wolverines, as Michigan had just 112 yards through the air and completed only 13 of its 28 attempts.

Joey Porter Jr. and Marquis Wilson were both relied upon as starters and both held it down at cornerback. Wilson had five total tackles and a pass break up, while Porter had four tackles and also broke up a pass. At safety, on the other hand, Brisker made five total tackles, including multiple in which he came down to the line of scrimmage and helped stifle rushes.

Michigan could quite literally get nothing going through the air, as it completed just two passes worth more than 20 yards, and had just one other pass go for double-digits.

Special Teams: A-

Jake Pinegar had himself a day at the Big House. The Iowa native knocked in all extra points and hit both of his field-goal attempts, which included 22 and 33 yards.

The Nittany Lions were also able to flip the field on special teams. The Wolverines mishandled a Jordan Stout punt, and safety Drew Hartlaub grabbed it as it popped into the air and set up the Nittany Lions deep in Michigan territory. That set up Pinegar for his 33-yard field goal.

The only reason the group doesn’t have an A is that Stout had an uncharacteristically shaky day. The junior booted two of his kickoffs out of bounds to set up Michigan on the 35-yard line, while he missed his only field goal attempt of the day from 49 yards. He did pin the Wolverines inside their own 20 on one occasion, however.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a junior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]rdstate.com

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