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Handing Out the Grades Following Penn State's Loss to Nebraska

by on November 15, 2020 9:30 AM

Well that happened. Penn State fell behind early, fell even further behind. Defense didn't tackle great, offense didn't play that great and yea, pretty much everything you've seen the past three weeks just against a different team.

Will Levis looked serviceable, Parker Washington appears to be the real deal and there's always next week for the Nittany Lions.

In the meanwhile, here are the grades.

Offense: C

You can chalk some of this up to garbage time, but Penn State has gained over 400 yards of offense in three of its four losses this year, topping out at 501 yards against Nebraska with 245 of those coming on the ground. Penn State finished the afternoon 8-for-17 on third down and three-of-five on fourth down. 

The Nittany Lions also improved their third-down, yards to gain average, needing an average of 4.7 yards to get a first down. This was a huge improvement over the rest of the season where Penn State has needed in excess of eight to 10 yards on average for a first down. Penn State ended the game with 30 first downs having run 91 plays to Nebraska's 60. Time of possession was just over 36 minutes for the Nittany Lions.

Will Levis was about as good as you could expect in the situation, going 14-for-31 and 219 yards and 61 yards on the ground. Levis missed on a few throws but was otherwise safe with the ball and made a handful of nice passes in key situations. If the Nittany Lions had ended up winning, a lot of it would have had to do with how well he played as the game went along. He'll have to improve if Penn State actually wants to win, but in the grand scheme of things he gave Penn State the spark it needed and seems to have plenty of confidence. It remains to be seen if he will actually start against Iowa next weekend, but he made a strong argument for his case.

Which brings us to Sean Clifford, who threw a very strange, very bad interception and followed it up with a strip-sack fumble turned touchdown that sealed his fate for the day. Whatever the exact cause, Clifford doesn't have the mojo he had in 2019 and his confidence appears to be following suit.

Penn State's receivers were solid again, Jahan Dotson only had two catches, but the freshman duo of KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Parker Washington both continue to show signs of players capable of being big pieces for the rest of the season. Both players had key catches late in the game and posted just over 100 combined yards.

On the ground this may have been Penn State's best looking effort from the three-man group. Devyn Ford led the way with 66 yards on 16 carries while Caziah Holmes added 50 and Keyvone chipped in a bruising 49 yards to his name. All three players had their moment and all three made the most of it.

Finally, the red zone. Penn State got into the red zone six times, scoring four of them getting just one touchdown out of those four scores. The Nittany Lions continue to struggle in that area both with play calls and getting to the red zone in the first place. All of this is coupled by Penn State's extremely long time-eating drives. The Nittany Lions had three drives that lasted over five minutes and got just six points.

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In the final 7:39, Penn State held the ball for 6:05, and didn't score. The icing on the cake as Levis was sacked, and then nearly sacked on the final two Nittany Lion snaps.

This grade is a C because there was some good, and mostly bad, but you can't exactly ignore 500 yards of offense. You also can't knock the backup for being the backup.

Defense: C-

This group continues to be a pain to grade. On the one hand, Penn State gave up 298 yards of offense and only allowed Nebraska to convert four times on third down on 12 attempts. On the other hand, the Nittany Lions let Nebraska score on four of its six first half offensive drives, putting its own offense in a hole from the outset.

Then in the second half it gave up three points and hardly any yards, suddenly giving its offense a chance, in particular as Brandon Smith hauled down an interception in the fourth quarter.

That said the weaknesses were there again, poor tackling and chunks plays doomed this group and the grade. Nebraska had three passes of over 20 yards and four runs of over 10, two of those coming on second and third down.

At the end of the day you can't let the other team score repeatedly to open the game, you just can't. It doesn't matter what happens in the second half if every game requires a massive comeback. Some of that is on Penn State's offense, but the Nittany Lion defense has opened up three-straight games giving up a 75-yard touchdown drive. This is not ideal.

Jayson Oweh led the way with nine tackles and 1.5 for a loss while Jesse Luketa was had nine of his own and a pass deflection.

Really like all four games this year, Penn State's defense has shown up in the second half to give the offense a chance, but not showing up in the first half is how you end up being 0-4.

Special Teams: B

Jordan Stout kicked one out of bounds but otherwise he was fantastic. This grade gets marked down a bit for his 56-yard miss and a shanked punt, but this group has put most of its Week 1 miscues behind it. Jake Pinegar was 3-for-3 from the field in a game where Penn State needed all the points it could get, however it could get them.

Jahan Dotson's 21-yard punt return was one of the few return highlights of the year for this group and came a key moment for Penn State's momentum. Otherwise this unit is not overly threatening but it has also avoided the mistakes and that's worth something.

End of the day special teams did its job 95% of the time, which is more than the rest of the team can say.

Coaching: C-

Penn State has to get better in the red zone and while some of that is on players, a lot of that is one the play calls that are happening in close to goal. For whatever reason the Nittany Lions are content to throw corner fades to short receivers and it has yet to work this year.

This grade doesn't dip lower than a C because Penn State did a decent job finding ways to make Levis comfortable and managed to put him in a position to drive for a win/tie. There's a temptation to blame coaching for Sean Clifford's woes, and there might be some truth here, but it seems unlikely that they haven't addressed them ad nauseam, which is to say: they can only do so much.

It's hard to give a good grade to a coaching staff that is 0-4 on the year and hasn't fixed most of its team's issues, but "coaching" is often a catch-all for bad football when in reality Penn State's issues are bit more complicated than James Franklin not doing a good job. Albeit he is the big man in charge.

Overall: C-

It is what it is and Penn State is what it is. This group shows signs, then lights them on fire. Levis will be interesting to watch moving forward and Penn State's receivers continue to show promise, but until the second half starts without the Nittany Lions trailing by 20 it's hard to give them props for the overall effort.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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