Penn State football offense roundtable: Best and worst from the PSU offense
We're officially at the halfway point of Penn State football's regular season, with the Nittany Lions sitting at 5-1 after a loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes last week.
Penn State's bye week offers us a chance to reflect on what we've seen from the Nittany Lions to this point.
Today, the Blue White Illustrated staff of Dave Eckert, Greg Pickel, and Nate Bauer is breaking down the best and worst from the Penn State offense through six games.
What is the biggest surprise on offense to you?
Dave: I suppose it's difficult to be super surprised about that much as it relates to Penn State's offense because everything was new at the beginning of the season with Mike Yurcich in charge. We didn't really have a baseline.
That said, I'll go with Sean Clifford and his performance. Before the season, I thought the best-case scenario for him was evolving into an effective game manager for the Nittany Lions. Clearly, before he exited the game for Penn State on Saturday with an injury, he was well past that. He's a threat with his arm and with his legs, and he'd shown an ability to protect the football much better through six games as well.
Greg: I'm going to go with KeAndre Lambert-Smith.
Coming into the season, Penn State knew it had two studs in Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington but had no idea who it's No. 3 receiver would be. Enter KSL, who has become reliable over the first six weeks while catching 18 passes for 285 yards and a score. He saw an opportunity and seized it, and the Nittany Lions' offense is better because of it.
Nate: Coming off of a 2020 season in which he was so effective, picking Jahan Dotson for this category might not align with expectations, but it's true nonetheless. Dotson has been simply outstanding for Penn State at a time when he is the core focal point for just about every defense the Nittany Lions have faced this season. Statistically, that has translated into 43 receptions for 494 yards and six touchdowns, but the element that most stands out to me about Dotson's play has been how automatic it has all seemed.
Depending on what happens with Clifford moving forward, an established, reliable target that can bring down anything thrown in his vicinity is going to be a critical piece for the Nittany Lions to have offensively.
What has been the biggest disappointment for Penn State on offense?
Dave: It's gotta be the run game. The Nittany Lions average only 128.3 yards per game on the ground, that's 11th in the Big Ten.
Noah Cain, the de-facto talisman, is averaging three yards per carry and James Franklin has acknowledged that he isn't 100 percent. Overall, it just hasn't been good enough, and there are a variety of reasons for it as Penn State's staff continues to reiterate, whether it be the blocking from the offensive line and the tight ends, a lack of physicality from the running backs, how opposing defenses are approaching things — the list goes on.
If Clifford misses time, this needs to get fixed in a hurry.
Greg: We could all harp on the running game, so I'll go a different route and pick the tight ends. Sure, all three have had moments when they've thrived in the passing game, but they just haven't been a huge part of the offense and are at times liabilities in the running game.
Kudos to Tyler Warren for finding a niche role, but Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson have just 13 catches between them. Obviously, the ball has to go their way, but even when it has, there have been drops, and they don't do a great job of getting open. Admittedly, we've been spoiled watching what has come before them, but this highly-touted group just hasn't performed as well as many expected it to.
Nate: I'm taking a little different approach on this one, if only to suggest that while the consistency of the running game, or the tight ends, or even the offensive line have all been lacking this season, they haven't been wild departures from my expectations coming into the year.
What is a departure, however, has been the explosive element of Penn State's offense. Granted, some of the Nittany Lions' opponents have been steadfast in their commitments to take that away from Penn State, instead forcing a mature, patient approach. But given what I still consider to be a bevy of talented pieces, the quick-strike nature hasn't so far been to the level I believe Penn State considers itself capable.
Who is your offensive MVP?
Dave: Maybe this depends on your definition of 'MVP'. Instead of selecting Penn State's best player on offense, who I think is Jahan Dotson, I'll abide by the literal definition and go with Clifford as my MVP. As we saw when he left the game against the Hawkeyes, there is no more valuable player to that unit than Clifford. He is the key to everything.
Greg: I hate to be repetitive, but as Dave says, there just isn't another choice here. Penn State's offense has been better than anyone thought it could be when Sean Clifford is in the game, and the dropoff when he's not is extraordinary. That doesn't mean Ta'Quan Roberson can't be serviceable after two weeks of practices as the starter if needed, but Clifford clearly is the one who makes this attack go.
Nate: It's the most important position in football for a reason, and while I still think that Penn State has a path forward that can still be successful with a recuperating Clifford or without him altogether, his presence and continued development is what made the Nittany Lions such an intriguing team heading into the second half of the season. He's mature, he can make plays with his arm and legs, and despite his two picks at Iowa on Saturday, Clifford mostly limited his mistakes. That's a combination Penn State can more than live with and will sorely miss if he's out for any extended period of time.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the offense for the second half of the season?
Dave: Well, this is a tough one, because we don't know Clifford's status. If he plays and isn't physically limited, I'd consider myself optimistic, but without that certainty I'm going to have to say I'm pessimistic. With Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — all top-10 teams — still on Penn State's schedule and a distinct inability to run the football evident, I'm not feeling great about the Nittany Lions' outlook with Ta'Quan Roberson under center.
Greg: Call me crazy, but I'm optimistic about the offense regardless of who is under center. I feel better about it with Clifford than Roberson, of course, but there are too many smart people in the Lasch Building working on this to not figure something out that brings his strengths to the forefront. I think we see a very determined offense in the second half that can beat anyone if Clifford plays and toppled almost anyone with Roberson. The key to that is being better in the running game, which I think starts opposite Ilinois.
Nate: I've seen this show before, and despite the frustrations it inspires out of Penn State's fan base, the approach that Penn State is going to take offensively if Clifford isn't available is one that should elicit extreme pessimism.
Well, pessimism for points, explosiveness, yards, and consistency, anyway.
As I see it, with a defense that can hang with just about anyone in the country and a specialist in Jordan Stout that can change the complexion of a game, any small or extended absence for Clifford should mean an adjustment for Roberson that completely minimizes mistakes he can make.
The avoidance of beating yourself isn't sexy, I know, but Penn State only needs to look to Iowa - and even itself in the second half of the 2020 season - to see the blueprint of how boring, complementary football can create enough of an advantage to keep from going under in the coming days and weeks.
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