X-Factors For Penn State Football In 2022
Following an 11-11 record over the previous two seasons, Penn State football seems to be at an inflection point heading into 2022.
With a bounce-back season, the Nittany Lions can right the ship and write off their recent slump as a coronavirus- and injury-induced series of misfortunes. But, another year of mediocrity could be a smoke signal for serious trouble in Happy Valley.
So, how can Penn State get back on track? There are a few x-factors that will ultimately make or break the season just like they have in years past.
Sean Clifford’s Health
Despite what every future-forward fan wants, Sean Clifford is going to be the guy at quarterback in 2022 — and he’s clearly Penn State’s best option. For the Nittany Lions to have a successful season, Clifford is going to need to do what he’s struggled with in the past: stay healthy.
The quarterback was a completely different player before and after his injury in Iowa City last year, and his absence and subsequent regression greenlit a 2-6 skid to finish the season. The healthy version of Clifford — who threw two touchdowns, completed 88% of his 32 passes, and was mobile in the pocket against Auburn — will lead Penn State’s offense to success. The version that limped out against Illinois and Arkansas, registering a dismal 21.8 and 31.3 QBR, respectively, is going to lose the Nittany Lions games.
With a deeper quarterback room, Clifford’s health isn’t as dire of a situation as it was in years past. However, Penn State has recently struggled with on-the-fly quarterback changes and would benefit from the luxury of continuity for once. No matter how intriguing Drew Allar is, it’s in the team’s best interest for Clifford to stay at 100% throughout the season. And his health starts at the offensive line.
Offensive Line Improvement
Clifford was sacked 30 times in 2021, which was the most of any Big Ten quarterback. The quarterback’s mobility is a bit underrated, but he, just as any quarterback would, thrives with time in the pocket. The offensive line’s struggles last year made that nearly impossible, and for Penn State to win a lot of football games, it’s going to have to improve from the get-go.
The performance of the offensive line is such an x-factor not only because of quarterback protection but in the run game as well. It almost goes without saying how ineffective Penn State was at running the football last year. It has to improve, and it starts up front with the line.
The Nittany Lions’ rushers were often forced to get too cute in 2021 because of quickly collapsing gaps. The addition of promising prospects Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton should go a long way in revamping the ground attack, but the offensive line must pull its weight as well.
Luckily, help is on the way. Caeden Wallace at right tackle will likely be the only continuity from last year to this one since Juice Scruggs is expected to move to center. After a lights-out Outback Bowl performance, Olu Fashanu’s development is promising at left tackle. The versatile Landon Tengwall generates lots of excitement at left guard and Sal Wormley, who would’ve started last year, is back from an injury at right guard.
Cornell transfer Hunter Nourzad is also expected to work heavily into the rotation along with guys like Bryce Effner, Nick Dawkins, and JB Nelson.
This has been Penn State’s Achilles’ heel under James Franklin and has been a massive roadblock to the Nittany Lions punching their ticket to the College Football Playoff. With the exception of the 2019 season, Penn State has suffered consecutive losses every year since 2017.
Tricky losses to teams like Michigan State, Minnesota, and — avert your eyes — Illinois have handicapped Franklin-led squads, and it’s becoming a worrying trend. Penn State is most likely going to lose a game this year. If that’s against Ohio State, it can’t turn into a consecutive loss at Indiana. If it’s at Auburn, the Nittany Lions have to bounce back and beat Central Michigan the next week.
In today’s college football, it feels like one loss can derail your season. It might in terms of certain postseason hopes, but Penn State can’t let it turn into massive losing streaks like it has the previous two seasons.
Franklin has paraded the team’s depth all offseason, and rightfully so. Penn State is extremely deep across its defensive line, in the secondary, at quarterback, and most likely in its receiver corps. But, the linebacker group sticks out a bit like a sore thumb here.
The battle for middle linebacker, which was won by Tyler Elsdon, was a key offseason battle. You could look at this as the Nittany Lions having an abundance of talent, or you can pour the half-full part of the glass out and worry that neither guy was good enough to stand out. Regardless, Manny Diaz will need to rely on Elsdon and Kobe King to be decisive and stout to bolster the front seven.
With Curtis Jacobs leading the way, it seems like Penn State is overflowing with talent at will linebacker, which is the only of the three spots that return its starter from last year. But, across the field at sam linebacker, it’s a different story. The Nittany Lions will lean on Jonathan Sutherland, a 5′ 11″, 211-pound converted safety, at that spot, which I’m not completely sold on.
Sutherland’s veteran presence is a huge boost to a young linebacker room, but he has a lot to prove on the field. The redshirt senior+ registered just 24 tackles at safety last year and only has one game of linebacker experience under his belt. Dom DeLuca and Tyrece Mills, who have no in-game defensive experience at the collegiate level, are backing him up. This group is going to have to punch above its weight class if the defense wants to fire on all cylinders.
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About the Author
Kotelnicki’s hiring was first reported Thursday afternoon.
The Nittany Lions survived a late Minnesota comeback attempt to split the series.