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

by on December 29, 2019 8:00 AM

Penn State beat Memphis 53-39 on Saturday to pick up its 11th win of the season for the third time in four years. It was a weird game but certainly not a boring one as both teams landed punches and counter-punches in a very enjoyable and entertaining afternoon for the neutral observers. It was almost certainly more stressful for the emotionally invested.

The season is over, but the grades still have to be handed out, so here they are.

Offense: A

I think Penn State's offense, as a general concept over the past several years, has had success at such a high level that short drives and empty possessions have a tendency to impact people's overall impression of its effectiveness. The Nittany Lions rushed for 407 yards (sack adjusted) and averaged just over 8 yards a carry. Sean Clifford wasn't asked to do much, and completed 11 of his 20 attempts. He had a bad interception and a shaky start but was otherwise good enough in the few junctures when had to make a throw. 

You might argue that Saturday wasn't the most balanced game, and that's fair, but Memphis' inability to stop the run did little to entice Penn State to change its method of attack. Penn State was a perfect 5-for-5 in the red zone and just over 50% on third down with a 7-for-13 clip.

Journey Brown rushed for a casual 202 yards while Noah Cain added 92 to his name and Ricky Slade had 58 yards, with 44 of those coming on a single carry. 

All told Penn State's offense found its feet, scored 53 points, moved the ball and never let go of the lead once it had it. At one point it had scored on seven of nine drives in the middle of the game. I have a hard time knocking the result here. You don't need to be perfect, you just need to score.

A 28-point second quarter doesn't hurt either.

Defense: C+

This was a complicated afternoon for Penn State. On the one hand, the Nittany Lions gave up 39 points, a boatload of yards and, well, generally weren't putting the fear of God into anyone. On the other hand this group bent but didn't break and managed to make Memphis settle for six field goals of 37 or more yards. That's not an awful result, not a bad way to go about trying to win. 

But there are clearly issues left unresolved for this bunch, be it either getting into the backfield or coverage down the field. One way or another this group will have to improve in 2020 if it wants to win its higher profile games, but that might simply be a matter of younger players getting older. Brent Pry is getting paid a lot of money to figure this out, so it will be interesting to see what changes come Penn State's way next season to try to mitigate what has become an unexpectedly weaker unit than in years past.

Memphis only scored 16 points in the second half and three of those came in the fourth quarter. Considering how back-and-forth this game was, Penn State's defense made the stops it had to, and quietly reversed a trend of issues sealing the deal. It's fair to be critical of this group both today and in general, but it did more than enough to win. Sometimes in games like this it's how you finish, not the box score itself.

Oh, and Micah Parsons: wow wow wow. Honorable mention as well to Yetur Gross-Matos for picking up a one-handed sack while being blocked by two players.

Special Teams: A

It's not so much that this group did anything particularly special, but in a game that could have turned on a mistake, Penn State's special teams didn't make one. Blake Gillikin was solid in his final showing with a 45.3 yard average and a 59-yard bomb. KJ Hamler wasn't much to talk about in the return game but Memphis wasn't interested in giving him anything to work with either. Jake Pinegar's 45-yard field goal in the third quarter was a needed response to Memphis' momentum as well and he quietly finished off a solid season going 10-for-11 with his field goal attempts. This group wasn't flashy but it did far more good and really didn't have a bad moment of consequence.

Coaching: B

There are only two gripes here. Memphis was bad at stopping the run coming into Saturday and that was far from a secret, and yet Penn State only ran the ball once on its opening three drives. Sure, things happen and early drives can be scripted, but Penn State has four running backs to use and didn't until Memphis had the momentum. End of the day, 407 yards kind of makes up for some early struggles, but this seemed like a fairly straightforward decision. In fairness, as Penn State proved on its failed fourth down attempt, you can only do the same thing so many times in a row.

Other quibble: timeouts late in the first half on Penn State's scoring drive while deep in Memphis' neck of the woods led to enough time for the Tigers to work out a half-ending field goal drive. There are reasons to take timeouts, especially with a new play caller for the game, but it didn't feel like a well-managed situation.

Overall though Penn State made adjustments, made plays and was pretty consistent in two of the three phases.

Overall: B+

Penn State won, scored 53 points, made adjustments and enough plays to win. Not every game has to make sense or follow a certain script. All said and done they won and the issues of today might not be the issues of 2020, so let's not unpack this farther than we have to.

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