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The Curious Case of the Disappearing Penn State Offense

by on October 20, 2019 7:30 PM

Let’s boil down Penn State’s 7-0 record and No. 6 ranking to these three games:

Pitt, Iowa and Michigan.

Each are good teams, with identical 5-1 records in 2019 — when not playing Penn State.

That means I will do what Michigan State’s coaches will do as they prep for their 3:30 p.m. home game this Saturday against Penn State — throw the others out.

That means good-bye to FCS Idaho (3-5), transfer portal-depleted Buffalo (3-4), fast-sinking Maryland (3-4) and beat-up Purdue (2-5). Aloha. That desultory bunch is playing .379 football in 2019.

To get a true sense for the 2019 Nittany Lions, the Spartan coaches will be breaking down film of Penn State’s toughest foes — who just so happen to be built along the lines of the prototypical Big Ten squads, say like the one that resides at 325 West Shaw Lane in East Lansing, Michigan (the address for Spartan Stadium).

Size over speed, power over prowess, nut-cracking over nuance, and coaches who are largely conservative.

The good news for James Franklin and Penn State? They are 1-0 and 1-0 and 1-0 against such opponents in 2019.

The bad news? Just barely (17-10), just barely (17-12) and just barely (28-21).

Save for a knucklehead call by Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi, a pair of Iowa turnovers in the game’s final 20 minutes that Penn State adroitly turned into 10 points, and a likely game-tying dropped pass by a momentum-charged Michigan squad with 2:01 left on Saturday, the Nittany Lions could already have a loss. Or two. Or maybe even three.

But, they are undefeated.

However, they are not without their Achilles heel.

NO OFFENSE, BUT WHERE DO THEY GO?

Here’s what may be Penn State’s biggest weakness, at least in the games against Real Foes in 2019:

The Nittany Lion offense disappears. For long periods of time.

Against Pitt, the Nittany Lions scored 7 points in the final 30 minutes of the game.

Against Iowa, the Nittany Lions scored 10 points in the final 38 minutes of the game

Against Michigan, the Nittany Lions scored 7 points in the final 37 minutes of the game.

Tree: Yes, people are wondering why running back Noah Cain was mostly White-outed of the offensive game plan on Saturday night.

Forest: They should worry more about the 24 points — combined — Penn State scored in the third and fourth quarters against Pitt, Iowa and Michigan. That’s 8 points per half, a little more than a TD. Even more so, the numbers say that about midway through the second quarter Ricky Rahne & the iNits seem to switch to Low Power Mode and dial down the brightness level as well.

MY POINT

Here are the sources of those 24 points, which is just going to make those folks who raised Cain about Noah’s notable absences on Saturday even more livid, like the emails, DMs and texts that came my way all day Sunday:

-- A 13-yard TD run by Cain vs Pitt.

-- A 5-yard run by Cain and a 33-yard field goal by Jake Pinegar against Iowa.

-- KJ Hamler’s 53-yard scoring loft from Sean Clifford against Michigan.

That’s it. #shortlist

And, to be Brent Pry with you, that’s exactly what Penn State’s excellent defense has given up against the likes of Pitt, Iowa and Michigan — 43 points in all, 7 points a half. Penn State’s DC won’t say it, but he has to be thinking: Can’t you help a fella out?

(Lucky for Penn State, Michigan State comes into Saturday’s game having scored just 10 points vs. Ohio State and zero against Wisconsin. Sparty also scored zero points on Saturday… but’s that because he didn’t play. MSU had a bye week — during which time three of their receivers literally said “bye,” announcing they were headed for the transfer portal, joining three other previously announced departures.)

When you break down Penn State’s key stats vs. Pitt, Iowa and Michigan — which I just spent a few hours doing — you have to think that Mark Dantonio and his Michigan State assistants have to feel like they have a shot at upsetting the Nittany Lions.

The game is at home, in a tough and kinda old and sorta tiny stadium. Sparty is rested and angry. Dantonio is always ornery, at best, and is often best with his back against the wall, with a long history of special team tricks that could turn the tide in a close game.

Add that Penn State’s offense has also gone MIA against Michigan State the past two years, and there could be a trend here:

Against Michigan State in 2017, Penn State was shut out in the fourth quarter and came from ahead to lose, 27-24. And vs. MSU in 2018, Penn State scored just once in the final 34 minutes — on a 20-yard field by Pinegar — and came from ahead to lose, 21-17, thanks to a pair of Felton Davis TD catches.

THE BREAKDOWN

Here’s what Michigan State’s coaches will see when they break down Penn State’s numbers from Pitt, Iowa and Michigan in 2019, followed parenthetically by what MSU has surrendered in its last four games, in wins over Northwestern and Indiana, and in losses vs. Ohio State and Wisconsin:

PENN STATE PASSING — Clifford is 40 of 79 for 521 yards, with four TD passes and 8 sacks in those three games, for an average passing line of 13 of 26 for 174 yards, one TD and three sacks. Good, not great. But, most importantly, no picks. Rushing, in those three games Cliff is averaging 11 carries for 25 yards, and one overall TD. What MSU has given up: On average, 22 of 31 for 200 yards, 1.5 TDs and two sacks.

PENN STATE RUSHING — Against the big three, Penn State has averaged 38 carries for 148 yards, for an average carry of 3.9 yards. What MSU has given up: On average, 42 rushes for 189 yards, for average carry of 4.5 yards. Ohio State rushed for 323 yards and the Badgers ran for 222.

TURNOVERS — This is huge. Penn State did not commit a turnover against Pitt or Iowa or Michigan. Pitt was also flawless, while Iowa’s two turnovers led to two Penn State scores, and Michigan’s one pick by Tariq Castro-Fields led to a 25-yard TD catch by Hamler and a 21-0 Penn State lead. (Plus, the Wolverines dropped at least six passes; the last was the worst.) What MSU has given up: In its four Big Ten games, Michigan State is even — with six turnovers lost and six gained. Against OSU and Wisky combined, Sparty lost five turnovers and gained two.

PENALTIES — Aided by a plethora of flags in Iowa City (8 for 80 yards), Penn State lost the combined penalty battle in these games — 16 for 178 yards vs. 11 for only 71 yards for the Pitt/Iowa/Michigan combo. Penn State had three for 40 yards against Pitt and five for 58 yards against Michigan. Pitt was 2-18, Iowa was 1-5 and Michigan was 8-48. What MSU has given up: A wash. Michigan State has been penalized 20 times for 178 times, while the opposition was 23-190.

PLAYS — Michigan’s offense held the ball for exactly 15 more minutes than Penn State (37:45 to 22:15). That’s a full quarter more. Stunning. The Whiteout crowd could have made it a lot tougher, but after the first quarter it wasn’t much of a factor, TBH. Pitt had 76 plays to Penn State’s 52. Penn State held a narrow advantage against Iowa, 77-73. And, as we mentioned earlier, Michigan had an 82-54 advantage. What MSU has given up: Sparty’s offense is at a deficit over the past four games, 64 to 73. That includes just 51 vs. Wisconsin. Pry’s Guys could make serious hay here.

POINTS — The average score of Penn State’s three closest games is 21-14. What MSU has given up: In its four Big Ten games, Sparty has averaged 20 points, while giving up 28.

EXAM TIME

The question now is, under which category does Michigan State belong:

A.) Idaho, Buffalo, Maryland and Purdue, OR

B.) Pitt, Iowa and Michigan?

The answer, and Penn State’s next test, will come this Saturday.



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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