At the midpoint of the 2021 Penn State football season, the Nittany Lions are 5-1 and ranked seventh in the country. Here are five things we’ve learned and five things we should watch in the second half:
- Penn State doesn’t have a great backup quarterback in Ta’Quan Roberson, who looked overmatched replacing Sean Clifford in the 23-20 loss at Iowa. Roberson is in his third season in the program, but his playing time had been limited before Clifford’s unspecified injury. Three Lions quarterbacks have transferred since January 2020: Michael Johnson Jr., Micah Bowens and Will Levis, who’s now the starter at Kentucky. Coach James Franklin said multiple times in the spring that he and his staff had hoped to add a quarterback via the transfer portal. They didn’t.
- Wide receiver Jahan Dotson vowed in the spring that he wanted to leave his mark at Penn State, and he’s doing that. He’s among the national leaders in catches (43), receiving yards (494) and touchdowns (six). His most impressive statistic is that he doesn’t have a dropped pass through six games. His production the rest of the season hinges on the health of Clifford.
Penn State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brent Pry took the 4-5 record in 2020 personally. He lost 30 pounds and called the performance of the defense “embarrassing.” Pry went to work and tweaked some things, and now the Lions have one of the best defenses in the country. They rank fourth in points allowed and pass defense efficiency and in the top 26 in total defense and rushing defense.
The defensive backs have played like the best secondary Penn State has ever had. Safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown, and cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields, Joey Porter Jr. and Daequan Hardy have held Wisconsin, Auburn, Indiana and Iowa to less than 200 passing yards. They had one breakdown and it was costly: the go-ahead 44-yard touchdown pass from Iowa’s Spencer Petras to Nico Ragaini. They will be tested on back-to-back weekends at Ohio State and Maryland.
It’s hard to imagine where the Lions would be without defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo and kicker/punter Jordan Stout. All three began their college careers elsewhere and transferred to Penn State. Ebiketie, who was at Temple, leads the Big Ten with nine tackles for loss and has a team-high four sacks. Tangelo, who left Duke after last season, has become valuable after Hakeem Beamon was mysteriously declared unavailable for the season by Franklin and now after PJ Mustipher’s season-ending knee injury. Then there’s Stout, who transferred from Virginia Tech in 2019 and who ranks among the national leaders in punting and kickoffs.
Clifford’s health and availability means everything to Penn State’s success the rest of the season. It’s unclear what forced him to leave the Iowa game with the Lions leading 17-3 in the second quarter. Franklin said last week that “what he (Clifford) is dealing with is not uncommon at the quarterback position.” Clifford had a bye week to heal, but it remains to be seen whether he will play Saturday against Illinois at Beaver Stadium.
Franklin hired Mike Yurcich as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach shortly after last season to energize the offense and make it more explosive. The results have been mixed so far. Although the Lions are 5-1, they rank 68th in the FBS in scoring and total offense. It took former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead about half of a season to make a huge impact in his first season in 2016. It’ll be interesting to see if the offense takes flight the rest of the way, but Yurcich will need Clifford to do that.
Penn State’s rushing offense needs to be better in the second half, especially against a schedule that includes Big Ten East rivals Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, all ranked in the top 10. The four-man rotation clearly has not been effective and has prevented any of the backs from getting into a rhythm. Plus, John Lovett and Devyn Ford left the Iowa loss with unspecified injuries and did not return. Noah Cain lacks explosiveness, perhaps because of a lingering injury. Keyvone Lee has been the most productive back and should get the most carries.
The Lions will miss Mustipher in the defense’s interior line. He plugged a lot of gaps and provided tremendous leadership. Tangelo has been effective, and now Dvon Ellies and Coziah Izzard will get their chances to help the defense continue to stop teams. Their play will be vital against the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Spartans.
10. Add LSU as another rumored destination for James Franklin. Guessing whether Franklin will stay at Penn State or go to Florida State, USC or wherever seems to be a rite of fall. One thing for certain is that he has a very good agent in Trace Armstrong because his name is always mentioned when there’s an attractive job opening. My guess is that Franklin will gain some assurances from Penn State regarding staff salaries and facility upgrades and that he will be coaching the Nittany Lions in 2022, especially with a highly ranked recruiting class on its way to Happy Valley.
Source: Berkshire mont