Penn State Weathers Pass Game Inconsistencies In Central Michigan Win

The Sean Clifford experience was on full display in No. 14 Penn State’s 33-14 win over Central Michigan.

The quarterback, whose career in blue and white has been largely defined by ups and downs, had the inconsistency bug bite him again Saturday. But, despite an ugly offensive stretch toward the end of the first half, the Nittany Lions weathered the storm and walked away 1-0, which is easier said than done.

“It wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t bad. We won the game by a decent amount,” Clifford said postgame. “But, at the same time, it’s our standard. And I thought we didn’t meet it today.”

It would be unfair to say Clifford had a bad game. His offense came firing out of the gate as the quarterback completed each of his first eight passes, leading to a 14-0 Nittany Lions lead before the first quarter was even over. He finished with three passing touchdowns and 217 yards at a 65% clip.

However, the inconsistencies that have plagued Clifford-led offenses over the years reared their ugly head in the second quarter. The offense only connected on seven of its next 17 passing attempts, completely letting the Chippewas back in the game. Clifford missed some reads, the deep ball was nonexistent, and drops became a factor.

Of course, this dry spell wasn’t all on the quarterback. Through the first quarter, Penn State ran the ball double the number of times it passed. Considering Mike Yurcich called just 15 plays and the backs were coming off a smoking hot Auburn game, this was a generally balanced attack focused on establishing the run.

The script flipped in the second quarter. The Nittany Lions forced the ball through the air and ran into offensive issues as Clifford threw 19 passes compared to just six total rushing attempts.

“We have to be able to run and pass effectively and I think when we get out of whack and do one too much compared to the other, that’s where I don’t think we’re at our best,” head coach James Franklin said. “We’ve got to continue to mix in the run.”

James Franklin wanted to get backup Drew Allar into the game in the second quarter, but Penn State suddenly had to focus on just winning the game.

It’s unclear why the run-pass balance got so lopsided in the second quarter. The numbers are slightly inflated by a pass-only two-minute drill near halftime, but six rushing attempts is still pretty low. It’s not that running the ball wasn’t working. Penn State backs averaged 6.7 yards per carry in the second frame and Kaytron Allen punched in a score.

But, the Nittany Lions were still able to adjust and grind out the victory, which ended up being by a three-score margin. Clifford went 7-for-9 in the second half, building a cushion for Allar to take over for the majority of the final quarter.

Whatever halftime adjustments Penn State made worked, which is a good sign considering how it felt like that rarely happened in 2021. Parker Washington said the offensive unit didn’t just stick to the game plan when things turned sour. It remained flexible.

“We definitely made adjustments, especially during halftime and in between drives,” the wide receiver said. “That’s a big key for us to be able to communicate and make those adjustments.”

The run-pass split was an even eight and eight in the third quarter, righting the ship and putting things in cruise control for the rest of the contest.

When the dust settled, Clifford was able to lead Penn State to a relatively decisive win over an inferior opponent. That’s hard to take for granted considering some of the unnecessary losses suffered in recent years.

Central Michigan isn’t an awful team, as Brenton Strange alluded to after the game. The Chippewas came into the game with a MAC-leading passing offense and last year’s FBS-leading rusher. Wins are never guaranteed, and the Nittany Lions have four of them now.

But, whether it was the scary second half or the lack of a total blowout, it’s still hard to shake a weird taste in your mouth after that one.

“The game left you sitting here saying, you know, whether it was our focus, whether it was scheme, whether it was big play potential, I’m not sure,” Franklin said. “When you look at the stat sheet, you feel good about it. But it didn’t necessarily always feel that way during the game.”

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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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