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Reviewing the 2020 Penn State Nittany Lions

Nobody expected Penn State to start the season 0-3. Nobody.

Maryland v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

When the third version of the 2020 Big Ten schedule was released, many people suspected Nebraska might be coming into this week’s game winless.

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, suspected Penn State would be as well.

Sure, a week two matchup against Ohio State would be tough, but the most pessimistic case scenario had to be 2-1, right? Well, that’s 2020 for you.

Penn State’s season opener against Indiana set the tone for weirdness. Despite dominating Indiana in yards and in time of possession, Penn State found themselves trailing Indiana 20-14 until quarterback Sean Clifford found Jahan Dotson for a 60 yard touchdown pass with 2:30 left in the fourth quarter to take the lead. Indiana went backwards on their ensuing drive, turning the ball over on downs. But Indiana decided to let PSU’s Devyn Ford score uncontested in order to get the ball back, now trailing 28-20. And sure enough, Indiana drove the field for a touchdown and game-tying two point conversion to send the game to overtime. Indiana matched Penn State’s overtime touchdown, but elected to end the game with a two point conversion where quarterback Michael Penix dove for the pylon for a disputed game winning two-point conversion.

Ohio State dominated Penn State enroute to a 38-25 victory that looked closer than it actually was. The Buckeyes outgained PSU 526-325 in total yards, and held the ball for over 37 minutes. The real shocker was last week’s 35-19 loss to Maryland. The Terrapins rolled out to a 28-7 first half lead as Sean Clifford struggled mightily, completing just 47% of his passes with three interceptions. Clifford is now up to five interceptions in just three games; last season, he threw seven all season. This week, sophomore backup Will Levis is expected to see some action and perhaps rotate with Clifford.

Another reason Penn State is struggling is that running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain are out for the season due to an unspecified medical condition for Brown and a leg injury for Cain. Backups Devyn Ford, Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee have combined to rush for just 233 yards and one touchdown. That’s left Clifford as Penn State’s leading rusher with a team-leading 52 carries for just 150 yards.

Wide receiver Jahan Dotson and tight end Pat Freiermuth lead Penn State with 21 catches for 361 yards and 16 catches for 197 yards respectively. True freshman Parker Washington has caught 14 passes for 155 yards.

Penn State’s defense is ranked just ahead of Nebraska in scoring defense (36.3 vs. 36.5 pts. per game) and total defense (380.7 vs. 404 yards per game). They are stronger against the run (4th in the Big Ten, giving up 124 yards per game) than the pass (10th in the Big Ten, giving 256.7 yards per game). Linebacker Ellis Brooks and defensve end Jayson Oweh lead Penn State with 23 and 18 tackles respectively. Safety Lamont Wade has PSU’s only interception this season, highlighting their struggles defending the pass.

One of these two teams is going to break out of their funk this season (unless COVID-19 rears its ugly head) and come away with a win. The two teams actually seem to match up rather well, so it may not be the automatic loss that many penciled in a month earlier. With that, below the fold is the preseason preview of the Penn State Nittany Lions. (Suffice it to say that the idea that Penn State could be a favorite to win the Big Ten in 2020 might be more than a little off-base.)

If not for a certain juggernaut headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, the Penn State Nittany Lions likely would be the favorites to win the entire Big Ten in 2020. Penn State has won eleven games three out of the last four seasons with three trips to “New Years Six” bowl games to match. However, it’s not accurate to assume that they’d be dominating the Big Ten if not for the Buckeyes; each season Penn State has stumbled in another game to the likes of Pitt, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota.

Last season, some might have expected Penn State to step back after losing Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders to the NFL, but aside from a hiccup against the Gophers (and falling short against Ohio State), the Lions were strong contenders in the Big Ten’s east division. And with eight returning starters on offense, Penn State should be considered “next team up” should Ohio State falter.

Probably the biggest reason Penn State improved in 2019 was the emergence of junior quarterback Sean Clifford (6’2” 219 lbs.). Clifford completed 59% of his passes for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He’s a dual-threat, rushing for 402 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. Sophomore Will Levis (6’3” 231 lbs.) relieved an injured Clifford during the Ohio State game, completing 28 of 47 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. Despite his size, Levis averaged 4.3 yards per carry, rushing for 213 yards and five touchdowns.

A running back by committee worked wonders for Penn State last season, with junior Journey Brown (5’11” 216 lbs.) rushing for 890 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging an impressive 6.9 yards per carry. Sophomore Noah Cain (5’10” 223 lbs.) rushed for 443 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Sophomore Devyn Ford (5’11” 200 lbs.) rushed for 294 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. The trio combined for eight 100-yard games during the season (Brown tallied five of ‘em), so no matter who’s in there, Penn State should have a good running back in the game.

Penn State’s biggest loss this offseason is wide receiver KJ Hamler, a second round draft pick by the Denver Broncos. But junior tight end Pat Freiermuth (6’5” 259 lbs.), a fourth team All-American last season, returns after a 43 catch season for 507 yards and seven touchdowns. Junior Jahan Dotson (5’11” 184 lbs.) was third on the team in 2019 with 27 catches for 488 yards and five touchdowns. The rest of the receiver corps is pretty inexperienced; sophomore Daniel George (6’2” 215 lbs.) started four games and caught 9 passes for 100 yards.

Four of five starters return on the offensive line led by senior right tackle Will Fries (6’6” 309 lbs.), who’s started 35 games so far in his college career. He’s practicing some at guard to help better prepare him for an NFL career. Senior center Michal Menet (6’4” 302 lbs.) has been a two year starter, while sophomore Rasheed Walker (6’6” 326 lbs.) started every game last season at left tackle. With Fries and Menet flirting with the NFL last season, this should be one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten this season.

Defense is the primary reason why people might hesitate regarding Penn State in 2020 with only four returning starters on defense. Only senior defensive end Shaka Toney (6’3” 245 lbs.) returns after earning postseason honors last season. A second team all-Big Ten honoree last season, Toney led Penn State with 6.5 sacks last season; his 41 tackles ranks third among returning starters. Senior nose guard Antonio Shelton (6’2” 315 lbs. returns as well, but the hopes are high on sophomore defensive end Jason Oweh (6’5” 257 lbs.) and junior defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher (6’4” 305 lbs.) emerging as stars this season.

With Micah Parsons deciding to forego the 2020 season, “Linebacker U” is starting over fresh. Sophomore Brandon Smith (6’3” 240 lbs.) was a five-star recruit who’s anticipated to be Penn State’s next great linebacker, while true freshman Curtis Jacobs (6’1” 230 lbs.) could see playing time almost immediately as another five-star talent. Junior Ellis Brooks (6’1” 236 lbs.) has racked up 69 tackles as a reserve his first two seasons and should be the leader at this position.

Senior safety Lamont Wade (5’9” 193 lbs.) is Penn State’s leading returning tackler with 67 last season. Senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields (6’0” 190 lbs.) was a third team all-Big Ten honoree last season. There’s a solid group of highly regarded youngsters, such as redshirt freshman Joey Porter Jr. (6’2” 192 lbs.) and sophomore Keaton Ellis (5’11” 183 lbs.) who could emerge as the season develops.

With the 2020 edition of Penn State, I suspect it might be better to face them earlier than later in the season, due to the relative inexperience at so many positions on defense. If the recruiting pans out, Penn State should be a strong contender to throw much more than a token challenge to Ohio State’s dominance in the Big Ten’s east division.