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No Offense in The Horseshoe: How It Didn’t Line up for Penn State

by on November 24, 2019 9:00 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Nearly 50 minutes into its visit to The Horseshoe here Saturday, Penn State trailed second-ranked Ohio State by the scantest of margins, 21-17.

And no offense, but they did so with a set of players on the field that many would have thought improbable a year ago.

At Quarterback

Redshirt freshman Will Levis, who appeared as The Lion last week against Indiana, but prior to that he hadn’t appeared in a game for 50 days, dating back to Purdue on October 5.

A year ago, Levis was the next man up after the next man up after the next man up. A year ago, Tommy Stevens was the clubhouse leader to be Penn State’s starting quarterback in 2019, ahead of Sean Clifford.

But, when Clifford went down in the third quarter in Ohio Stadium on Saturday, Levis got the call.

And, as James Franklin had to be thinking again and again along the squishy sidelines, not Justin Fields, a former Nittany Lion verbal commit.

“The difference today,” Franklin said twice after the game, “was the quarterback’s legs.” And he wasn’t referring to Levis, who had 14 carries and five sacks among his 19 carries for 34 yards in a quarter-and-a-half.

Franklin meant Fields.

The Buckeyes quarterback had 21 rushes for 68 yards, including four first downs — all four coming on third or fourth down. He had runs of 9, 14, 17 and 22 yards, offset by three Penn State sacks and three fumbles (he lost two of them.) Fields was also 16 of 22 passing for 188 yards and two TDs, with no picks.

Clifford didn’t have much success before he left the game. He had six carries for zero yards, and threw for just 71 yards through the game’s first 40 minutes. The Nittany Lions had just four first downs and 64 yards on 25 first-half plays. Cliff is on a bit of a tough run, completing just 54% of his passes while being hobbled with injuries over the past half-dozen games.

At Running Back

Journey Brown had eight carries for 44 yards — tied for eighth on the squad — in 2018. In 2019, he had gone through a midseason stretch of 21-, 21-, 16- and 19-yard games against Maryland, Purdue, Iowa and Michigan. But, he never quit, and logged back-to-back 100-yard efforts vs. Minnesota and Indiana.

Against the Buckeyes, Brown gamely fought his way to 64 yards on 11 carries (eight in the second half), including a bruising and gutsy 18-yard scoring run in the third quarter. Freshman Noah Cain was the only other PSU running back who had a carry, and that was a solitary run in the second quarter for one yard. Fellow frosh Devyn Ford made the trip to Columbus, but didn’t play for the first time in 2019.

Sophomore Ricky Slade — the starting RB in Penn State’s first two games of 2019 — didn’t make the trip due to a violation of team rules. Slade, the top returning ball-carrier entering 2019 (with 257 yards and five TDs on 45 carries), has just 36 carries this season (fourth among running backs), and is averaging 3.3 yards per rush.

Overall, Penn State ran for 99 yards against the Buckeyes, continuing a four-year trend against Ohio State. In the 2016 matchup, PSU ran for 122 yards. In 2017, 91 yards. And in 2018, 206 — with all but 31 of those yards coming from QB Trace McSorley. (That includes a two-yard loss by Miles Sanders on a fourth-and-5 carry late in the fourth quarter.)

At Wide Receiver

Not 2018 veterans tall (Juwan Johnson) and small (Brandon Polk), who both started vs. the Buckeyes last season. They are long gone to the transfer portal, Johnson to Oregon and Polk to James Madison. With great success, too: their current teams are a combined 20-3, and combined they have 75 receptions for 1,299 yards, a 17.3-yard average, and 13 TDs.

On the field in the rain on Saturday, Penn State’s No. 1 receiver, KJ Hamler, was playing injured, and finished with three catches for 45 yards. The No. 2 receiver, Jahan Dotson, had one catch for six yards. And the No. 3 receiver, Justin Shorter, had the first multi-reception game of his career (with grabs of 18, 5 and 5 yards).

At Tight End

This was the position that played out as expected a year ago.

Always reliable Pat Freiermuth, a two-year starter, caught six passes for 40 yards, and Nick Bowers grabbed a pass for 12 yards. It may have been the last Big Ten road game for Freiermuth, who is eligible for the NFL Draft, and it is a certainty that Bowers, a grad student in his final year of eligibility, will not return.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Where does that leave the Nittany Lions’ offense?

Well, they conclude their Big Ten regular season on Saturday in Beaver Stadium against Rutgers. Both Clifford and Hamler are fighting injuries. Even if neither play, Penn State is a 41-point favorite and almost a lock to up its record to 10-2, its third season in the double-digit win column over the past four.

But, on offense, it is finishing its second consecutive season in a bit of a scoring tailspin. Again. Granted, the competition is Big Ten tough. But, that will not change from year to year.

In 2018, the Nittany Lion offense averaged just 24.11 points per game over its final nine contests, while going 5-4.

In 2019, the Nittany Lion offense has averaged 23.8 points per game over its past six contests, going 4-2 and defeating the likes of ranked Iowa and Michigan, as well as Michigan State on the road. For the most part, Brent Pry’s defense has been a godsend.

Granted they were facing the nation’s No. 1 defense on Saturday. However, Ohio State is on the schedule every year, and PSU must find a way to put points on the board vs. the Buckeyes, in addition to defeating them (Franklin is 1-5 against Ohio State). One year, Saquon and Gesicki and Hamilton leave. The next, Trace and Sanders follow. It’s the circle of college life.

It’s quite possible that the Ohio State game was Penn State’s offensive nadir of 2019, what with Clifford going out and Hamler not near 100%. So, a stellar 11-2 is not out of the question.

BEING EXPLOSIVE

Still, despite injuries to two key players and facing a truly elite Ohio State defense, Franklin was frustrated.

“We didn’t have enough explosive plays,” Franklin said on Saturday. Twice.

And he was right.

The Nittany Lions had just one play from scrimmage for over 20 yards — Hamler’s 22-yard reception in the fourth quarter. They entered the game with 51 of them, including 10 vs. Idaho in the season opener.

They had just one special teams play over 20 yards — Hamler’s 26-yard yard return on the opening kickoff. They entered the game with 14. 

Penn State’s 227 total yards were their fewest in 16 games, dating back to the 42-7 debacle in The Big House in 2018. The Buckeyes’ offense, with 417 yards, almost doubled them up.

Only twice in the past four seasons did the Nittany Lions score fewer than the 17 it did against the Buckeyes, possessors of the nation’s No, 1 defense entering the contest. (It should be noted that two of Penn State’s scoring drives vs. the Buckeyes went all of 11 and 12 yards.) That would be against Michigan in 2016 (49-10) and in 2018. They also scored 17 vs. Iowa earlier this season, as well as in their 21-17 loss to Michigan State in 2018.

By comparison, Rutgers’ offense hung 21 on the Buckeyes two weeks ago.

Of course, the Rutgers defense will certainly be the cure for what ails the Nittany Lion offense this Saturday. 

The Scarlet Knights, 2-9 after firing head coach Chris Ash midway through the season, are giving up 37.5 points per game in 2019 — ranking it No. 124 out of the 130 teams in major college football.

Talk about an answer to Thanksgiving prayers: Penn State’s offense will go from facing first to nearly the worst.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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