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Penn State Football’s 2021 Season Report Card

We’re on to 2022…almost.

Before we move past Penn State football’s disappointing season, it’s time to look back and assess the Nittany Lions’ 7-6 campaign. Inconsistent play across the board loomed large for Penn State, and the final grades reflect just that. With that said, let’s get into it.

Quarterbacks: B-

Led by starter Sean Clifford, it was an up-and-down year for Penn State’s quarterbacks. The first five games of the season were strong for Clifford, as he posted 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions while guiding his squad to a 5-0 record heading into Iowa City.

Clifford’s injury against Iowa was the turning point of the season for the Nittany Lions. While he was sidelined, Ta’Quan Roberson came in and struggled mightily to the tune of just seven completions and two interceptions. From there, Clifford returned the next game against Illinois, but he was clearly below 100% and didn’t come close to his standard from the first five games.

Down the stretch of the season, Clifford’s play was inconsistent. His year ended with a disappointing outing in which he completed just 44% of his passes, threw one touchdown, and tossed two interceptions in Penn State’s Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas.

The other quarterback to receive significant game action was Christian Veilleux. The true freshman shined in relief of Clifford against Rutgers when he completed 62.5% of his passes and threw for three touchdowns.

While the quarterback position is always criticized far more than others, Penn State’s signal-callers did a solid job during the 2021 season.

Running Backs: C-

It was a tough year for Penn State’s running backs.

Throughout the season, the Nittany Lions’ rushing attack could just never consistently get it going. Surprisingly, not a single Penn State running back had a 100-yard game this season, highlighting the struggles the Nittany Lions had running the ball.

While the backs certainly weren’t helped by their offensive line, the Nittany Lions had the second-worst mark in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game with 107.8. The backfield was led by Keyvone Lee, who was actually quite productive when he was given the ball.

Lee totaled 108 carries for 530 yards (4.9 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. He added 15 catches for 130 yards, too. Penn State’s other two top backs, Noah Cain and John Lovett, struggled to put together any consistent stretches this year. Cain averaged 3.3 yards per carry, while Lovett posted a 3.4-yards per attempt mark.

Wide Receivers: A-

Jahan Dotson led the team’s strongest group with a career-high 91 catches worth 1,182 yards and 13 touchdowns (12 receiving, one rushing). Time and time again, Dotson terrorized opposing defenses with his slick route running and elite hands.

Parker Washington took a giant step forward this year and set a career-high in both catches (64) and receiving yards (820). The second-year wideout served as a legitimate threat opposite of Dotson, giving the team optimism moving forward, as he’s poised to be the team’s No. 1 wideout next season.

No. 3 wideout KeAndre Lambert Smith complemented the one-two punch of Dotson and Washington nicely. Lambert-Smith posted 34 catches for 521 yards and three touchdowns. Malick Meiga and Cam Sullivan-Brown rounded out the group with a few receptions each.

Tight Ends: C-

After James Franklin labeled this tight end room the best he’s ever been around in his 25 years of college football, the unit certainly didn’t live up to expectations. Besides struggling to block in the run game, the tight ends didn’t make too strong of an impact through the air, either.

Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson posted similar stat lines, with Strange totaling 20 catches for 225 yards and Johnson catching 19 passes for 213 yards. The duo was expected to play a larger role in the passing game going into the season, but it never materialized.

Nonetheless, Strange did contribute three touchdowns this season, including a go-ahead score in the White Out.

Tyler Warren saw the field in a wildcat package and totaled three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving), too.

Offensive Line: D

Whether it be pass blocking or run blocking, the Nittany Lions just couldn’t get the job done up front. Penn State allowed the most sacks in the Big Ten with 34. Even when Clifford wasn’t sacked, he was often hurried, which led to plays breaking down at inopportune times.

The offensive line’s troubles were prevalent in the run game, too, as the Nittany Lions posted the second-worst yards per game average in the Big Ten, as well as the conference’s second-worst yard per carry mark.

Defensive Line: B

Penn State’s defensive line was led by Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie, who posted 62 tackles, 18 for a loss, 9.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. “AK” wreaked havoc for opposing offenses all season long.

Jesse Luketa, who primarily played defensive end for the Nittany Lions in 2021, totaled 61 tackles and 8.5 for a loss. Derrick Tangelo and, before his injury, PJ Mustipher made up the inside of John Scott Jr.’s defensive line.

Despite a few successful individual performances, Penn State’s defensive line struggled a bit in the run game. The Nittany Lions allowed the fifth-most rushing yards per game in the Big Ten with 152.4. As far as pass rush is concerned, Penn State was middle-of-the-pack in the conference with 27 sacks.

Linebackers: B+

The Nittany Lions’ linebackers were a strong part of the squad this year. The trio of Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith, and Curtis Jacobs slowed opposing offenses for much of the season. Brooks totaled 100 tackles, while Smith posted 81 tackles, nine for a loss, and five passes defended.

Jacobs, in his first year as a starter, flashed with 61 tackles and an interception. With Brooks and Smith heading to the NFL, Jacobs is poised to lead the group next year and continue the tradition of “LBU”.

Tyler Elsdon and Charlie Katshir saw time in backup roles, while true freshman Kobe King and Jamari Buddin got a taste of college football before they likely take on larger roles next season.

Secondary: B+

Led by elite safety duo Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown, Penn State’s secondary played well this season. Brisker totaled 63 tackles, five passes defended, and two interceptions. Back in September, he hauled in a clutch interception to ice the game against Wisconsin in the season opener.

Brown was a ballhawk this season with a team-leading six interceptions, including a pick-six against Maryland. Additionally, Brown finished third on the team with 73 tackles.

At cornerback, Joey Porter Jr. and Tariq Castro-Fields complimented the dynamic safety duo well on the outside. Daequan Hardy, true freshman Kalen King, and Johnny Dixon also saw significant time at corner this year, while Jonathan Sutherland served as a safety/linebacker hybrid.

All in all, the secondary played a huge part in Penn State’s impressive pass defense that allowed the third-fewest passing yards per game in the Big Ten this year. The Nittany Lions allowed the second-fewest passing touchdowns and had the third-most interceptions in the conference.

Special Teams: B

It’s really hard to evaluate Penn State’s special teams this year.

On one hand, Jordan Stout was an absolutely incredible punter. He averaged 46 yards per punt, pinned the ball inside the 20-yard line 35 times, and booted the ball over 50 yards 25 times. Additionally, while the Nittany Lions didn’t do much in the return game, there were no glaring mistakes, which is the most important thing.

On the other side of it, Stout struggled as Penn State’s primary field goal man. He made just 69.6% of his kicks, and he missed two extra points. By the season’s end, Jake Pinegar had taken over as the Nittany Lions’ field goal kicker.

Another negative for the special teams unit was the *curious* trick plays. Remember the fake field goal that saw Stout get the ball and make a run for the end zone?

What about the fake punt pass against Arkansas?

Stout has quite the arm apparently, but the call was interesting, to say the least. The two fakes were questionable, and they lead to the overall grade being reduced.

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About the Author

Gabe Angieri

Gabe is a senior majoring in journalism and is suddenly Onward State's managing editor. He grew up in Lindenhurst, New York, and has had the absolute misfortune of rooting for the Jets, Mets, and Knicks. If you want to see his bad sports takes, follow him on Twitter @gabeangieri and direct all hate mail and death threats to [email protected]

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