Penn State football showing versatility of winning: Final thoughts
Penn State improved to 2-0 Saturday afternoon after topping a Ball State program very different from Wisconsin which, consequently, demanded an effort that was very different from what the Nittany Lions showed against the Badgers.
Quarterback Sean Clifford produced 230 yards and a touchdown on 21 of 29 passing, boosted by another 66 yards and a touchdown rushing on 11 carries. Penn State's defense kept Ball State's talented Justin Hall at bay, allowing the veteran pass-catcher just three receptions for 16 yards on the day.
And in another game in which the Nittany Lions created takeaways while committing no turnovers themselves, another week of redemption against the 2020 season came to fruition as they now turn to this week's national primetime game against Auburn.
Before moving on to the Tigers and the much-anticipated White Out game at Beaver Stadium, though, let’s wrap up some final thoughts from Penn State’s win against the Cardinals:
1) Versatility of winning
James Franklin threw the line in as an afterthought at the end of a lengthy explanation Saturday night after Penn State's win.
But, to these ears anyway, the message rings loudly.
Having faced a Ball State program determined to keep everything in front of it defensively, partly a result of the explosiveness the Nittany Lions had shown in their season-opening win at Wisconsin, Franklin emphasized the reality opposing defenses are going to be faced with this year.
"I just thought we were more balanced. We were more efficient," Franklin said. "Part of it is how they play. They played soft. They were not going to allow us to throw it over their head. I think that was obvious in their game plan on the defensive side of the ball.
"But by doing that, you create some free access throws and I think we threw for a pretty high percentage there in the first quarter, first half. It's kind of give and take, you got to pick your poison a little bit."
That line - pick your poison - is something not completely unfamiliar to Franklin and the Nittany Lions under his leadership with the program. And in fact, its meaning is what Franklin has sought as a fundamental facet of how the program approaches the game.
In essence, against a schedule that will present a variety of approaches, Penn State wants to be flexible enough and talented enough that it has the ability to win those games in the same variety of ways.
And while at just two games, one on the road in a hostile environment against presumably one of the Big Ten's best teams, the other at home in a friendly environment against presumably one of the MAC's best teams, the season is too young to truly paint with any type of broad brush stroke, it's not so young as to not see how Franklin is envisioning his Nittany Lions' success this season.
Determined to take away Penn State's talented set of chain-moving running backs? Sean Clifford and receivers who can stretch the field can take care of that.
Determined to take away that explosiveness? Penn State might not love it, but it's willing and able to plod up and down the field without losing its patience offensively.
And on the other side of the ball, even a low-scoring slugfest shouldn't scare this group, either, as Penn State has shown it can scratch and claw defensively to keep opponents out of the end zone. At 11.5 points per game allowed, the Nittany Lions' defense is tied for 11th now nationally.
Given its field position play against the Badgers, a major component to the win on special teams, the variety of options that the Nittany Lions hope to have in their toolbox this season is offering - again, at the earliest stages - some signs for encouragement.
2) Stating the obvious
I'll admit, I'm not going to get any awards for insightfulness here, but the drum warrants another pounding as it relates to Penn State's fundamental approach to the game.
Offensive turnovers defined the Nittany Lions' 2020 season, early opportunities for wins snatched away by mistakes made by quarterbacks Sean Clifford and Will Levis as well as a plethora of other Penn State skill position performers.
Less noticeable but similarly backbreaking, Penn State's inability to create takeaways defensively proved to also be a major inhibitor to the program's success last season.
So, again filed to the department of "it's early, buddy," the fact that the Nittany Lions have yet to suffer a turnover, while creating five for themselves, should be seen as the significant piece that it is. In fact, having recovered a fumble and making four interceptions now, two of which were so obviously crucial to the Week One win at Wisconsin, Penn State's +2.5 per game turnover differential has an early place at No. 5 nationally.
"When we talk about statistics, we won field position, we won turnover battle, we won the explosive play battle," Franklin said Saturday. "When you do that, you got a chance to be successful."
Penn State will continue to prioritize those elements of the game and, it should be noted, the establishment of those healthy habits tend to compound themselves as the season progresses. Build confidence protecting the football, or taking it away, and Penn State will continue to like its chances in every game it plays this season.
Auburn, for the record, has one turnover in its first two games this year.
3) Involvement fair
Penn State's list of offensive players to have caught a reception against Ball State was a point of pride for Franklin following the game.
Clocking in at 10 in all, the number was fewer than than the Cardinals' 13 for the game but more than enough for Franklin to feel as though one of the major aims of the offseason had been at least temporarily achieved.
""I love the fact that we were able to spread the ball around offensively this game," Franklin said. "We had 10 different receivers with catches in the first half, so that was awesome."
Led by Parker Washington's six catches for 57 yards, Penn State's starters still finished atop the chart with Jahan Dotson (five for 65), and running back Noah Cain (three for 30) rounding out the top three. But in generating receptions for tight end Theo Johnson (two for 29 with a TD), Keyvone Lee (one for 24), Cam Sullivan-Brown (one for 16), KeAndre Lambert-Smith (one for 13), Brenton Strange (one for 10), Devyn Ford (one for 6), and Marquis Wilson (one for 3) came as a major boon for Penn State this week for a couple of reasons, Franklin said.
"Whenever you can spread the ball around to that many people it creates a healthy locker room," he said. "It makes it difficult to defend so they can’t bracket a specific receiver."
A chance to not only earn a win but also to set standards as Auburn begins its preparations against Penn State, the Nittany Lions will enter the game with an added boost of confidence in its passing game possibilities.
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