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Penn State Football’s Midseason Report Card

By: Ryan Parsons and Will Pegler

It’s officially the halfway point of No. 7 Penn State football’s 2021 campaign.

The Nittany Lions have seriously impressed up to this point. An injury to Sean Clifford played a massive role in Penn State’s first loss of the season this past weekend, but James Franklin’s team still stands at 5-1 as a clear contender in the Big Ten.

With a brutal back-half of conference play still ahead of it, let’s take a look at how each of Penn State’s position groups has performed up to this point.

Quarterbacks: B+

Especially considering his dismal 2020 campaign, Sean Clifford has been fantastic through his first five and change games. The veteran quarterback hasn’t put out eye-popping stats, but he’s looked comfortable in the pocket, used his legs when necessary, and has made efficient decisions consistently.

Clifford has thrown for 11 touchdowns this season along with 1,482 total yards. He does have five interceptions, two of which came this past weekend against the Hawkeyes. However one of those picks came on a pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith against Villanova that absolutely should’ve been caught, while a deep mistake against Auburn at the White Out simply served as a punt before halftime for the Nittany Lions.

The Cincinnati native has also been excited with his feet so far, as he already has 173 rushing yards and two scores. Most recently, Clifford reached pay dirt on a well-executed draw play that put Penn State up 14-3 early against Iowa.

As solid as Clifford has been, the quarterback situation remains unclear at the moment. He sustained an injury in the second quarter against the Hawkeyes that knocked him out of the game, and redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson struggled mightily in his place.

If Roberson will need to start against Illinois after the bye week, he’ll need to take a couple of steps forward. The inexperienced quarterback was understandably rattled at a hostile Kinnick Stadium and finished his day with just seven completions on 21 attempts. Roberson also had trouble communicating with his offensive line, as the Nittany Lions picked up an ugly eight false start penalties with him calling the shots.

Clifford’s impressive rebound campaign has been one of the many bright spots for this year’s squad. If anything, the offensive issues in the second half against Iowa only proved how important the veteran quarterback is to this team.

Running Backs: C-

Ja’Juan Seider’s group had a ton of hype entering this 2021 campaign, and with plenty of depth and experience in the room, it all seemed to be warranted. However, Penn State’s rushers have largely disappointed so far.

The Nittany Lions currently have the 11th-best rushing attack in the Big Ten, as the group is averaging just 128.3 yards per game. Keyvone Lee and Noah Cain lead the room with 204 and 202 yards on the season, respectively, but neither has yet to get into much of a rhythm.

Lee’s top performance thus far came against Indiana, as he put up 74 yards on the Hoosiers. He’s had a hand full of explosive runs throughout the season, but they’ve been too few and far between for him to be considered a very productive rusher just yet.

Penn State has clearly tried to get Cain back to his freshman self. He leads the team by far with 67 attempts on the year but truly hasn’t looked like the same aggressive, fall-forward type of rushers fans got used to seeing in 2019. James Franklin noted that the Louisiana native was “dinged up” against Villanova, so it’s unclear if that knock has affected his production. Either way, his top performance of the year was just a 69-yard day in the win over Ball State.

As it stands now, Clifford is Penn State’s third-leading rusher behind that pair. John Lovett and Devyn Ford have added value sparingly, but the pair are both underneath 100 total rushing yards through six games.

Wide Receivers: A-

Jahan Dotson has lit up the opposition all season and is the undisputed star of Penn State’s offense. In case you needed a reminder of this, the senior already has 43 catches this season worth 494 yards and six touchdowns. Dotson has recorded two 100-yard games this year, along with a ten-catch, 78-yard night at the White Out against Auburn.

The Nazareth, Pa., native has arguably been the best wide receiver in college football up to this point and has already made several highlight-reel plays to boot.

Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith haven’t been too shabby either. The first of that pair has been a valuable target for the offense thus far, as he’s totaled at least two catches in each game. Washington has 357 receiving yards up to this point, along with two impressive touchdowns against Villanova.

As for the last of the starting trio, Lambert-Smith has hauled in 18 passes for 285 yards this season. His 15.83 yards per catch is the highest among Penn State’s wide receivers, and the sophomore also holds the Nittany Lions’ longest reception of the year at 83 yards.

Tight Ends: C+

Before the season started, James Franklin said this year’s group of tight ends is the best he’s ever been around in 25 years of coaching college football.

Although Ty Howle’s guys have shown that at times, especially against Auburn, the group has largely failed to meet those expectations. Franklin has pointed to their struggles with run blocking, and Brenton Strange has dropped a few passes in crunch time.

But one of the biggest advantages Penn State’s tight ends have had this season is their depth. Strange is the go-to guy, but Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren aren’t separated by big gaps on the depth chart. Mike Yurcich has loved running 13 personnel this year, so this has come in handy.

In particular, Warren’s versatility has stood out this year. He’s scored twice from the wildcat and has appeared in every game but Iowa.

Strange has eight catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns so far this year, while Johnson has hauled in five passes for an impressive 111 yards and a score.

Offensive Line: C

It’s been a tale of two games for Penn State’s offensive line this season. It’s been excellent in pass protection, but the run game has been nearly non-existent.

After the season opener in Wisconsin, it seemed like pass protection was going to be a problem for the Nittany Lions. But, the crew up front quickly bounced back and proved it could be effective, especially against Auburn.

Sean Clifford has been sacked seven times this year, while Ta’Quan Roberson has gone down twice. That nine-sack figure is good for the sixth-best in the Big Ten. The line also struggled immensely with false starts against Iowa, suffering eight after Roberson came in. It’s hard to just blame that on the big men, but it was not a good look in general.

Defensive Line: A-

Simply put, John Scott Jr.’s crew has been awesome this year.

Penn State’s defense has been its crown jewel this season, and the defensive line has been integral to its success. After the Nittany Lions lost guys like Shane Simmons, Shaka Toney, and Adisa Isaac, this group was a big question mark, but it’s safe to say it’s delivered so far

The emergence of Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie, who is almost certainly an NFL talent at this point, has been a key to Penn State’s success. He has the third-most tackles on the team with 31, along with a team-high four sacks, a team-high nine tackles for loss, and four quarterback hurries.

Although he is now out for the season, PJ Mustipher has been a force to reckon with on the interior of the line this year. He totaled 21 tackles and a nine-yard sack before his season was cut short. Now, redshirt sophomore Dvon Ellies, who filled in well against Iowa, will likely start in Mustipher’s place for the remainder of the year.

Defensive end Nick Tarburton and defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo haven’t carried as much weight as some may have expected ahead of the season, but they’ve shown great things and generally played solid defensive football. 

Linebackers: A

Penn State’s linebackers have probably been the team’s most impressive position group this season.

Ellis Brooks leads the way with 44 tackles, and Brandon Smith isn’t far behind him with 37. Jesse Luketa, who’s played in a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season, also has 27 tackles and a pick-six on the year.

Curtis Jacobs also had himself a day against Iowa, registering two tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry, and a sack.

Overall, Penn State’s linebackers have just been everywhere this season. Even if you’re just watching casually, it’s really hard to ignore the impact guys like Brooks and Luketa are having on the field. It’s a versatile and cohesive unit, and they’re really good against the run and in pass rushing.

Secondary: A-

Along with the rest of the defense, Penn State’s secondary has balled out this year.

The Nittany Lions have hauled in seven interceptions so far, which is good for third-best in the Big Ten. Ji’Ayir Brown leads the way for Penn State with three picks.

The Lackawanna College duo of both Brown and Jaquan Brisker has set the tone for the secondary this season. Brisker has 25 tackles this year, along with two interceptions of his own and three pass breakups. These guys’ impact has been hard to miss this season.

The continued emergence of redshirt sophomore Joey Porter Jr. has been another bright spot for the defensive crew. He’s been incredible in pass coverage and has racked up 24 tackles and an interception. Tariq Castro-Fields has continued to be a solid presence as well, leading the team with four pass breakups.

As Penn State often opts for nickel packages, it’s hard to ignore the impact Daequan Hardy’s had as well. He also has a team-high four pass breakups, along with two tackles for loss and a sack, while seeing fewer snaps than the rest of the secondary. He’s got an interception this season, too.

Special Teams: B+

It’s kinda been the Jordan Stout show for Penn State’s special teams this year. The specialist has led the Nittany Lions to a conference-high 48.8 yards per punt and has kept opponents to less than a yard per punt return on average. That’s not to mention how nearly every single one of his kickoffs sails into the stand for a touchback.

Stout has also converted 20 of his 21 extra points and is 8-for-11 on field goals, with a season-long 50-yarder coming against Indiana.

Penn State’s punt and kickoff coverage has been excellent as well. Perhaps the only knock is in the return game, which has been about nonexistent.

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