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Penn State Football: Handing Out the Grades Following Penn State's Loss to Iowa

by on November 22, 2020 8:00 AM

And here we go again.

Penn State lost, this much has not escaped you at this particular moment in time. The Nittany Lions are 0-5 which feels equally improbable given the greater context of the program's past several seasons and also more locally unlikely considering some of the numbers Penn State has managed in spite of its own shortcomings.

But no matter the shock and awe, no matter the surprise you might feel, it is what it is. Penn State tried it all on Saturday including two quarterbacks, a seemingly watered down offense and slight improvements across the board to end up with the unique result of simultaneously getting blown out and having a chance to win at the same time all within the fourth quarter.

Strange times. And here are the grades.

Offense: B/C/D

Gosh this group is getting harder and harder to really nail down. 21 points isn't bad, but it's also not going to be enough with the defensive woes Penn State has right now. The Nittany Lions were 7-of-15 on third down which is pretty respectable on any given weekend and Jahan Dotson had 139 yards receiving on eight catches on 11 targets. Dotson has had 90+ yards on four of five outings this year, breaking the 100-yard mark on three occasions. He's doing all he can. 

Dotson has now caught a pass in 25-straight games.

Sean Clifford came in and tossed back-to-back touchdown passes on back-to-back throws. Will Levis threw for 106 yards on 13-for-16 attempts which is obviously fine but mostly a product of taking what you get and not trying for much more. Generally speaking one would be hard pressed to say that Levis is the better option no matter how rattled or inconsistent Sean Clifford might be. At this point Clifford's playbook is far larger and his general experiences are far wider. Even if Levis completes 80% of his passes the fact most of them are inside of 10 yards is going to make it a real pain in the [insert here] for Penn State to pose any real threat against defenses with a pulse.

Overall you can't knock someone for throwing touchdowns on back-to-back plays. On the other hand you can't ignore an offenses' overall issues because two good things happened in a 19 second span.

Penn State can't really run the ball (35 carries, 62 yards) and can only sort of protect the quarterback (Iowa had five sacks). Generally speaking the Nittany Lions did enough to get back into the game but it's difficult to says "hey good job." for two good plays over the span of 70+ forgettable ones.

So a B for making a game of it, a C for Levis doing the best he could, and a D for the group as a whole generally being unthreatening. Yes, everyone is hurt, but that only gets you so much leeway. Especially since everyone has been hurt for a while now.

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Oh and the four turnovers. Not an expert, but that's not good.

It is what it is. 1.8 yards per rush ain't gonna cut it. But hey, 1-for-1 in the red zone.

Penn State ended the day with one rush of 10+ yards and four completions fo 15+. With 176 yards, Clifford sits 81 passing yards away from becoming the 12th Penn State quarterback to reach 4,000 career passing yards.

Defense: C

This unit is what it is. At this point we're handing out gold stars for things like "didn't get scored on this drive" when in reality that's a pretty normal thing to expect for large portions of the game. The Nittany Lions did stop Iowa on its first drive, giving up just a field goal after giving up a touchdown on three-straight opening drives. So hey congrats.

Tackling continues to be an issue and Penn State has struggled to stop the run which seems surprising for a program that generally has been good against the run. Iowa ended the night with 361 yards which is good but not overwhelming and to Penn State's credit only earned 3.8 yards a carry even if the big chunk plays felt timely. [Iowa had six runs of 10+ yards]

So where does this grade get saved? Penn State gave up 24 points on four scoring drives that averaged out to roughly 40 yards each. It's one thing to give up points, but when you're starting on the positive side of the field [Iowa started three drives on Penn State's side of the field and got 17 points from it.]

It's one thing to want Brent Pry's group to improve, another all together to expect it to just magically drop an iron curtain in the middle of the field and refuse to give up yards to other good football players.

Obviously this bunch has to get better in every area, but seven of these points are a pick-six, and more than a few more are piggybacking off of Penn State's offensive woes.

Shaka Toney had a nice bounce back game with three tackles for a loss, two of those for sacks. Lamont Wade led the way with 10 tackles but one might not exactly say being the last guy to stop a big play is a real honor. Keaton Ellis made a career-high six tackles, including four solo tackles. His previous best was three on four different occasions, with the last coming at Nebraska a week ago.

Special Teams: C

I mean, there were no field goals, a missed extra point and basically no returns to speak of so, yeah, that's about average. Iowa didn't win this game on special teams and Penn State didn't have — outside of whatever happened on that extra point — any miscues. The Nittany Lions also converted a nice two-point attempt. So there's that.

Jordan Stout continues to be surprisingly good at punting, averaging 45.2 yards a blast which helps the cause.

The whole fair catching the kickoff thing continues to feel kind of dumb but Penn State will take all of the things it can get that don't involve mistakes, so can't knock doing your job properly.

His return yardage meant Dotson recorded a career-high 177 all-purpose yards, topping his previous personal best of 144 yard against Ohio State earlier this year.

Coaching: B-

Yes, yell at me. But Penn State made the right call giving Levis a start and made the right call putting Clifford in time to try and spark a comeback when it didn't work. Also Levis was given an offense he could handle when he played and made the most of it with short -but complete- passes. If Penn State's coaching staff could simply call its way out of these issues with good plays it would have done so by now. It at least gave it a go Saturday.

Obviously there's a lot the program has to deal with — you don't stumble into 0-5 by mistake — but from a game management standpoint Penn State did about as well as it could have given all the various things going on.

B- doesn't mean "everything is fine nothing to see here" but if we're going to accept Penn State for what it is, we can at least grade it against itself. Or at least that's how I'm going to justify it. 

Overall: C-

Penn State is what it is, but it also isn't any better than it was last week and doesn't seem to be any closer to making the strides it needs to. So you can't exactly give it a good grade for being the wrong kind of consistent.

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