The time has come for Penn State’s 2022 football season to be defined.
The unbeaten Nittany Lions face Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio State, opponents with a combined 16-1 record, in their next three games.
They’re off to their fourth 5-0 start in six seasons, including two that ended with 11-2 records and berths in New Year’s Six bowl games and one last year that crashed to a 7-6 finish.
Which direction is Penn State headed? Here are five issues to watch over the next seven weeks that will help answer that question:
1. Does Sean Clifford give Penn State the best chance to win?
Clifford remains a target for critical fans, even with Penn State ranked in the top 10 and even with him throwing nine touchdown passes against two interceptions. He gave them fodder with two underwhelming performances against Northwestern in a rainstorm and Central Michigan.
Highly touted freshman Drew Allar remains the fans’ favorite, but he didn’t play against Northwestern, a clear sign that coach James Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich believe Clifford is the better choice right now. He played well late at Purdue and at Auburn and knows the offense, blocking calls and coverages well.
But if the Lions lose two of the next three games and Clifford plays poorly, it will be time for Allar to see more significant game action and perhaps even become the starter.
2. Can the running game be effective the rest of this month?
Freshmen Nick Singleton, the former Gov. Mifflin star, and Kaytron Allen have combined to rush for 766 yards and eight touchdowns behind an improved offensive line. Penn State, however, will face much stronger run defenses than it has so far.
Central Michigan (70th), Auburn (92nd), Ohio (99th) and Northwestern (102nd) rank in the bottom half of the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing defense. The Lions struggled on the ground at Purdue, which is ranked 17th. Michigan (seventh), Minnesota (sixth) and Ohio State (15th) will provide more difficult tests.
Penn State is averaging a robust 192.6 rushing yards a game, a quantum leap over the 107.8 it averaged last year. The next three games will provide a litmus test.
3. Can Penn State’s rushing defense maintain its success?
The Lions rank fifth in the FBS against the run, allowing only 79.6 yards per game. But the best rushing offense statistically they’ve faced is Auburn, which is 75th. Central Michigan (97th), Purdue (103rd), Northwestern (110th) and Ohio (112th) all are in the bottom third in the country in rushing.
In the next three weeks, Penn State will see three of the top 20 rushing offenses in the country and perhaps three of the top backs in Michigan’s Blake Corum, Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim and Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson. Ibrahim did not play last week against Purdue because of an ankle injury.
The Lions have outstanding tackles in PJ Mustipher and Hakeem Beamon, but they’re thin at linebacker. Dynamic freshman Abdul Carter might see more time than he has and could add speed and athleticism against the run.
4. Should Penn State be concerned about turnovers?
The Lions lost four fumbles and an interception in their 17-7 win over Northwestern earlier this month after committing one turnover in their first four games.
Singleton, who fumbled twice, Allen and Keyvone Lee lost the football four times against the Wildcats in the rainy conditions, visibly angering Franklin. Because he’s a stickler for ball security, there’s no doubt it was a focus during the bye week.
It’s hard to remember a game in which Penn State running backs lost four fumbles. Were they a byproduct of the dreadful conditions and a lack of detail or simply jarring hits by Northwestern? Or were they an aberration? We’re about to find out.
5. Can Penn State rely on Jake Pinegar?
Pinegar has gotten off to a rocky start, missing two extra point attempts and two field goal tries.
He did connect on a 38-yard field goal in the fourth quarter against Northwestern, which helped hold off the Wildcats.
Pinegar has made 41-of-57 field goal tries in his career, an above-average .719 success rate. He has missed seven extra point attempts, which is not good.
Franklin has said placekicking is a concern, especially with potentially close games coming up in the next several weeks.
Source: Berkshire mont