Blue White Illustrated

December 2021

Penn State Sports Magazine

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6 D E C E M B E R 2 0 2 1 W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M I f you're a Penn State fan, it's likely dif- ficult not to feel snakebitten. The Nittany Lions have dropped heartbreaker after heartbreaker on their way to a 6-4 overall record, following a 21-17 loss to Michigan on Nov. 13 in a game that turned on a 47-yard touch- down pass in the closing moments. Michigan tight end Erick All broke free down the sideline after Penn State defensive backs Kalen King and Daequan Hardy collided with one another in man coverage in the middle of the field. The Nittany Lions never caught him. It was yet another example of the Nit- tany Lions failing to make the crucial play when they had to have one. "Obviously that margin of error is small," Penn State coach James Franklin said after the game. "When you look at our side of the conference, maybe one of the better sides of the conference in col- lege football, you can pick out four to six plays each game and, for most teams and most people, that's going to determine your success. We will find a way to make those six plays per game, especially the way we're playing on defense. You have a chance to get wins against really good teams, and we have not made those six plays a game consistently enough in the season." There is also, of course, the fallout from Sean Clifford's injury to consider. One could easily make the argument that two of Penn State's four losses directly resulted from a knock that forced the fifth-year senior quarterback to exit in the first half against Iowa and seemed to limit him considerably against Illinois. When asked what had sparked an improved performance for the Nittany Lions in a tightly contested defeat at Ohio State a week after the shocking Il- linois loss, Franklin pointed to Clifford's health. All of that matters as we contextualize what Penn State has done this season, a task that, following the Michigan defeat, feels a bit like a postmortem. Despite all the misfortune, though, the numbers tell us that this group of Nit- tany Lions was never bound for the lofty heights Penn State fans dreamed about following a 5-0 start. Coming out of the Michigan game, the Nittany Lions owned the eighth-ranked offense in the Big Ten in terms of total yardage, with an average of 378.9 yards per game. In games against FBS opponents, Penn State was averaging 4.8 yards per play, 109th nationally. We know that the Nittany Lions' de- fense is elite. It showed you why against the Wolverines, holding them to 21 points and keeping a Penn State offense that struggled through the middle quar- ters within a score. But this Penn State offense isn't good enough to break through college foot- ball's glass ceiling, even with a healthy Clifford. The Penn State defense has kept so many of these games close, as it did against the Wolverines. It nearly held on for a win over Iowa despite Clifford's injury, repeatedly standing tall despite abysmal field position. In similar fash- ion, the Hawkeyes broke through with an explosive play late. Against Wisconsin in the season opener, when the Nittany Lion offense achieved one first-half first down, the defense held the Badgers off the scoreboard until the offense woke up out of the break. The truth that has made itself so pain- fully obvious throughout this season is that Penn State's offense is one-dimen- sional. The Nittany Lions cannot run the ball. Their 109-yard rushing perfor- mance against Michigan, in which they averaged 2.6 yards per carry, was their third-best showing of the season. That has handed the passing game a weight it cannot possibly carry, not even with senior wideout Jahan Dotson setting school records. "We have played hard, but we haven't made enough big plays," Franklin said. "You take Jahan Dotson out, and we're not making enough big plays or explosive plays. We've done that for a really long time, and I don't know if we've had very many explosive runs all year long, so that is something we're going to have to look at hard, but I think that's the big- gest issue. We just don't have enough explosiveness besides Jahan Dotson on the offense." It's natural to zoom in on the details after a loss like the one Penn State suf- fered against Michigan. Why did the Nittany Lions throw a fade route to lightly used senior receiver Cam Sullivan-Brown on the decisive fourth down? Why did they attempt a fake field goal from the 2-yard line in the first quarter instead of simply going for it with the offense on the field? How did All find himself wide open across the field for the winning Michigan touch- down? These are all valid questions to ask of the coaching staff and of the players. Al- most every loss for the Nittany Lions this season has been filled with them. But in some ways, they mask the real- ity of the 2021 season for the Nittany Lions, who outperformed their own ca- pabilities with that 5-0 start. ■ O P I N I O N DAVID ECKERT davidecker Sean Clifford bounced back from an injury against Iowa, but the Nittany Lions' offense has struggled in ways that go beyond the senior quarterback's health. PHOTO BY STEVE MANUEL Michigan Game Was Microcosm Of Lions' Season JUDGMENT CALL

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