Penn State Football is Broken, and It's Hard to See a Path Forward

By Nick Polak on November 24, 2020 at 8:33 am
Nov 21, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) reacts following the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

For a few fleeting moments on Saturday, it seemed like maybe, maybe, a switch had finally been flipped on the Penn State sideline. After Sean Clifford was reentered into the lineup and threw for two touchdowns on two plays with the defense forcing a missed 50-yard field goal in-between, it seemed like the juice that had been missing all year long may have finally been returning. The defense stepped up again moments later forcing a punt with 11:53 to go and the team down just 10 points.

Then came the first interception as a result of a pass batted at the line. It would be followed by a field goal. Then came the second interception, this one by a defensive lineman, and returned for a touchdown (and to be clear, it was an incredibly awesome play). And that was that.

The most disappointing thing about this season so far for Penn State isn't that they're 0-5. That's wildly disappointing, don't get me wrong, but the most painful part of all of this to watch is that it's hard to see exactly where they go forward from here.

It starts at quarterback. As could have been expected, Will Levis struggled against a good Iowa defense. To be clear, I think starting him was the right decision, but it was hard to see a path to success this week for his preferred style of run-first play. Clifford looked great on his first two throws, then after he didn't connect on the third one, the offense immediately shrunk back into its shell and the interceptions started flowing.

I have no idea what James Franklin should do next. Clifford is and always has been the better-suited player for the job, but his play after the two touchdown throws looked exactly like everything else we've seen from him. And with a two-game sample size to go on, teams seem to have a pretty easy time preparing for Levis as the starter. So unless TaQuan Roberson is both healthy next week and deemed ready enough to get his shot at the job, I really don't know who the best option is.

The offensive line looks like it's starting to somewhat settle in, but with the 2020 season already down the drain, thinking ahead is vital. Caedan Wallace looks like a good one, but right guard Will Fries and center Michal Menet will both be gone next year. Left tackle Rasheed Walker will likely be back, but even he could test the NFL waters if he's advised to.

The only bright spots on the offense to this point are the pass-catchers, who ironically were the biggest question marks ahead of the season. Pat Freiermuth is gone for the year, unceremoniously and unfortunately ending his Penn State career, but Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson both looked good on Saturday. And while some have maligned the wide receivers and blamed them for not getting open, we've seen them get open enough that the issue surely seems to be more on the side of the passer than the receiver there. Of course, it's impossible to truly gauge blame there without an All-22 view of every play, but considering what we have seen from Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, especially, it's hard to say they've been an issue.

Things don't get much better on the defensive side of the ball. PJ Mustipher missed most of the second half while none of the other defensive tackles have flashed. Defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney have been solid enough but are both gone next year (assuming Oweh declares). The linebackers have been thoroughly unimpressive, with Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks getting eaten alive due to their lack of speed, while Brandon Smith missed some time due to injury and still has no trust from the staff to do anything but blitz.

Looking at the secondary, cornerback Joey Porter Jr. might be the best overall defensive player the team has, but he's all that has gone right back there. Tariq Castro-Fields was playing well, but has now missed two games due to injury, and is off to the NFL next year. Safeties Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker have been brutal to watch, and backup Jonathan Sutherland hasn't been any better.

Penn State came into this season thinking it would be an improved version of last year's team. Unexpectedly losing Micah Parsons, Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and now Pat Freiermuth was a tough hand to be dealt, but it shouldn't have led to this.

This wasn't a planned reloading year. There isn't a wave of incoming freshmen and underclassmen ready to burst onto the scene next fall, at least it doesn't appear that way. Come the 2021 season, barring a transfer import or two, we'll still be here asking the same questions about the same quarterbacks. We'll still be seeing the same linebackers in the middle of the field and wondering when the younger, faster ones will be ready. We'll still be trying to find two more cornerbacks to play with Porter and two safeties who can be relied on. We'll be hoping the staff can find three new starters on the offensive line and two new defensive ends.

The finish to the 2020 season, merciful as it will be, won't provide the answers this team seemingly needs. It will just bring upon new ones and rehash old ones. And right now, it's hard to find answers to any of them.

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