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Penn State’s Post-Michigan Report Card

Now sitting at 6-4, Penn State football is officially in dire straits.

Following a 21-17 loss to Michigan, the Nittany Lions have lost four of their last five games. Once again, a strong defensive effort was not met with the same energy from the offensive side of the ball.

Before Penn State moves on to its final home game against Rutgers, let’s review how each position group performed against the Wolverines.

Quarterbacks: B

Sean Clifford didn’t get much help from his offensive line, but it wasn’t his best overall performance. The veteran signal-caller completed just 53% of his 43 passes for 201 yards and one score.

Clifford did look like his old self on the ground, though. He ran for a sack-adjusted 60 yards Saturday and generally looked comfortable in the pocket. He extended plays with his feet, but his accuracy (especially on deep throws) remained an issue.

One thing you can’t question is the quarterback’s toughness. He took a beating, suffering seven sacks and four hurries from a vicious Wolverine front. Clifford clearly looked shaken up after plenty of plays, but he stuck in there until the very end.

Running Backs: B-

Although their final numbers weren’t much to write home about, Penn State’s running backs took another step forward against Michigan. Keyvone Lee appears to be “the guy” moving forward, as he posted a season-high 88 yards at a 4.4-yard-per-carry clip.

Noah Cain only saw the field when Lee briefly went down with an injury, and John Lovett, who got the start, took a backseat after a handful of untimely drops. Although it’s likely too late at this point, Lee has shown lots of improvement since the beginning of the season.

Wide Receivers: B-

Penn State’s offense was mostly pedestrian against Michigan, so while guys like Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington had solid individual performances, it’s hard to hand the overall unit a high grade.

Washington led the way with 92 yards on four catches, while Dotson caught nine of his 16 targets for 61 yards and a crucial two-point conversion. Dotson’s elite ball skills and route-running were once again on display, but he wasn’t able to find the end zone. He also had an uncharacteristic play where he ran backward to try to make guys miss.

Malick Meiga once again saw an increase in rep counts as he recovers from an injury, and Cam Sullivan-Brown oddly had two targets on Penn State’s most important drive to end the game. One ball bounced off his hands, while one was overthrown.

Tight Ends: B

Penn State’s tight end corps enjoyed one of its better performances of the year against Michigan, but that isn’t really saying much. Theo Johnson caught all four of his targets for 28 yards, while Tyler Warren hauled in his only target of the day for an all-important fourth-down touchdown score.

Brenton Strange caught one pass for seven yards after not getting involved in the passing game at all against Maryland. This group has seen issues with drops all year long, but that wasn’t on display at all Saturday.

Offensive Line: F

This group had its worst performance of the year against Michigan and was quite detrimental to Penn State’s success.

Sean Clifford was sacked a season-high seven times, and although the Wolverines have some of the country’s best pass rushers, that number is unacceptable for James Franklin. It’s hard to ignore the group’s inability to create holes for the Nittany Lions’ rushers, too.

Mike Miranda suffered an injury at some point in the game, which caused some shuffling, but Phil Trautwein’s crew’s struggles went far beyond just losing one guy.

Defensive Line: B+

Once again, Penn State’s defense did more than its part. Arnold Ebiketie had himself a day, leading the defensive line with seven tackles, two tackles for loss, and a forced fumble.

Michigan’s Hassan Haskins did rush for more than 150 yards, but the Nittany Lions’ “bend don’t break” mentality was once again on full display as they held the Wolverines to just 21 points. Save for a late, explosive touchdown, that number would be closer to 14.

Dvon Ellies and Coziah Izzard continue to pull their weight in PJ Mustipher’s absence, while Jesse Luketa put together seven tackles of his own in his hybrid role.

Linebackers: A-

Penn State’s linebackers continue to be the lynchpin of this impressive defense. Ellis Brooks led the way with 15 tackles and assisted on a tackle for loss, and Brandon Smith was right behind him with 10 tackles and a broken-up pass. Curtis Jacobs even got involved on special teams, catching an 18-yard pass on a fake punt.

Despite one or two missed tackles, it was hard to find much wrong with how this group performed Saturday.

Secondary: B

Penn State’s Lackawanna College duo of Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown continue to be rock solid at the safety position, as they combined for 10 tackles on the day.

However, the Nittany Lions struggled a bit at the cornerback position. After committing some pass interference penalties in the past few weeks, Joey Porter Jr. got burnt by Roman Wilson on a simple seam route down the middle of the field. He had just one tackle.

Tariq Castro-Fields was at times replaced by true freshman Kalen King, who mostly held his own but got tripped up on the big touchdown that eventually won Michigan the game. Baylon transfer Johnny Dixon also saw some playtime as Penn State once again mixed in some dime packages.

Special Teams: ???

It’s really hard to give these guys a grade.

On one hand, Jordan Stout and his all-star gunning team of AJ Lytton and Drew Hartlaub averaged 51 yards per punt. Stout also hit 52, 42, and 31-yard field goals and even connected for an 18-yard pass on a fake punt.

On the other hand, Stout missed a 43-yard kick and was tackled for an 18-yard loss on a fake field goal. While Penn State’s special teamers obviously didn’t call that play, those two mistakes accounted for a six-point swing. When you lose by four points, that’s a hard margin to ignore.

Stout largely played well, even after seeing a heavier workload, but you can’t just brush over the crucial mistakes.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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