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Penn State Football: Handing Out the Grades Following the Nittany Lions' Win over Iowa

by on October 13, 2019 8:30 AM

IOWA CITY, IOWA -- Penn State went to Iowa City and came out the other end with a win and a 6-0 record on the year. It wasn't always pretty and at times the Nittany Lions didn't look like the better team, but Penn State's win was the result of all three phases of the team chipping in. Not every win has to look nice. They all count the same when it's all said and done.

Here are the grades.

Offense: B-

Penn State managed to convert 10-of-19 third down attempts on Saturday night with a good number of them in short yardage situations. The Nittany Lions didn't make the most of two different drives that started in Iowa territory, which drops this grade a bit. It goes without saying the Clifford didn't start great, but considering this was his first true road test in an environment like that and against the best defense he has seen so far, we're going to cut him a little slack.

Where this group bounces back is in two areas: Clifford was solid in the second half and made more smart choices than not. And given the chance to close out the game with the ball in their hands, the Nittany Lions got the required first downs and ran out the clock. Noah Cain may not be the No. 1 back on a depth chart full of "ORs" but he's clearly the man to beat right now. Journey Brown, Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade all had four carries each, but all felt like a stopgap between Cain's carries. The freshman finished with 102 yards on 22 rushes.

KJ Hamler had his moments and managed seven catches on 10 targets. Justin Shorter also had a fantastic catch on his only target but Penn State was largely a non-factor in the passing game in terms of big plays down the field. Most of this was the result of Iowa keeping things in front of the safeties, but Penn State didn't quite have a chunk play punch like in weeks past.

Penn State's offensive line only gave up one sack the rest of the game after giving up two early on.

All told this is the kind of game you have come to expect from Iowa and Penn State. This was never going to be a shootouts and it never turned into one. In the pantheon of low scoring rock fights, Penn State played this one well enough to win, and that counts for something.

Defense: A

This is the kind of defense that wins you a lot of football games. Defensive tackle Robert Windsor was a force in the middle with 2.5 TFLs while PJ Mustipher added his own seven-tackle stat line to the box score. Penn State gave up a few chunk plays and had a few moments it would like back, but it bent, it didn't break. Strong performances inside the 20 boost this score and giving up just 70 yards on the ground solidifies it. Penn State's defense has the ability to make teams one-dimensional and has pretty much answered the call dealing with whatever that dimension is. The Nittany Lions could probably do better dealing with deeper fades, but Tariq Castro-Fields slipping isn't a matter of technique or scheme; it's just bad luck.

Iowa converted eight times on 18 attempts facing third down. Penn State also forced two turnovers and was on the field for two more balls on the ground.

This group continues to show up when needed, and that doesn't look to be changing anytime soon.

Special Teams: A

This group wasn't flashy — KJ Hamler was held in check and a 33-yard field goal isn't exciting — but Blake Gillikin punted seven times and landed five of them inside the 20 on an outstanding night punting. There is some debate to be had about two running into the kicker calls, that never happened in favor of Gillikin, but that's not something he can control. After a shaky week against Purdue, this unit was back in fine form. The only thing missing was a big return, but you can't create a return out of something that doesn't exist. 

In low scoring games that can turn on field position, Gillikin was a weapon and more than did his part. You want your special teams to help win the game, and it's hard to argue that didn't happen on Saturday. Iowa started six drives from inside the 20, and had four drives in the second half start inside the 15. That's flipping the field.

Overall: B

Nobody is questioning whether or not Penn State could have played better, but considering how the game started, and how it ended, there's value in winning that way. Sean Clifford turned things around on the road, Penn State's defense played like the elite unit that it is and a veteran punter set up Iowa deep in its own end of the field. You can complain about ugly plays and bad moments and that's not unfair, but Iowa is a bear to beat at home for a reason and Penn State went in without its best effort and still won. That's worth something.

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