Grading the Penn State Offense Through Two Games

By Nick Polak on September 13, 2021 at 8:07 am
Sep 11, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Parker Washington (3) avoids a tackle while running with the ball during the third quarter against the Ball State Cardinals at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Ball State 44-13.
Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to a fairly comfortable win over Ball State, the Nittany Lions now sit at 2-0 and have secured a spot within the AP top-10. Suffice to say, things have gone well for James Franklin's teams after its first 120 minutes of football.

So with two games in the books and a marquee opponent traveling to Happy Valley next weekend, let's take stock of how the offense has performed after the season-opening victories.


Grade: B-
Top Performer: Sean Clifford

Through two games in the 2021 season, Sean Clifford has done what most of us were hoping he would do – avoid turnovers. The driving force behind the Ohio native's regression a year ago was his sudden inability to avoid handing the ball back to the opposition. But through his first two contests of the new season, including one against the fearsome Wisconsin defense, Clifford has been able to take care of the football. In fact, there have really only been one or two throws that were even remotely in danger of being picked off.

Clifford has also shown growth when it comes to decision-making, both in the run and pass game. However, there is still work to do. He still hasn't been terribly consistent with his throws overall, including multiple deep misses/nonideal deep balls to Jahan Dotson in the opener. If he can clean those up (perhaps this can happen with more consistent footwork?), then there is no reason that the senior quarterback can't elevate this grade throughout the season.

Running Backs

Grade: B+
Top Performer: Noah Cain

Despite mostly pedestrian numbers thus far, this group has been impressive when given the chance to be. Once Noah Cain was given the chance to get the ball in space against Wisconsin, he flourished as both a runner and a pass-catcher. Then against Ball State, the yards may not have been plentiful, but there was plenty of space to exploit for him, Keyvone Lee, and Devyn Ford.

Lee, after a Week One misstep, looked more like the guy we saw in 2020 against Ball State. He was able to avoid dancing in the backfield and simply power his way downhill, and it worked perfectly. We've yet to see the offensive line open up many holes for these guys on the interior, but if they do, this group is ready to explode.

Wide Receivers

Grade: A
Top Performer: Jahan Dotson

What a group this is. Dotson is the clear star and has left little doubt of that (10 receptions, 167 yards, 2 touchdowns), but this is a group with a ton of star power, even if it's not very deep. Parker Washington continues to do his thing as a reliable No. 2 receiver with absurdly strong hands to boot (10 receptions, 104 yards) while KeAndre Lambert-Smith is starting to show his massive, big-play potential (5 receptions, 84 yards).

Even against the stout Wisconsin defense, this group has had little trouble finding open space all over the field, and they've gone up and made play after play for their quarterback. This group is easily the most impressive part of the offense to this point, and they should only continue to improve.

Tight Ends

Grade: B-
Top Performer: Theo Johnson

The tight ends, while getting a ton of playing time and being used all over the formation, have yet to make too much of a statistical impact. That impact is coming, they're simply too talented and too matchup-proof to stay off the box score for long, but right now this group has been quiet.

Johnson grabbed the first tight end score of the season to close out the Ball State game, and both he and Strange have gotten chances to line up as close to the ball as on a tackle's hip, while also splitting as wide as the sideline. Eventually, that versatility will pay off.

Offensive Line

Grade: C+
Top Performer: Eric Wilson

Now, Wilson might not really be a fair choice here. But given the difference between how the line played before he entered the game against Wisconsin and after, I feel like it's a good choice. Overall, though, this group has not been as impressive as it looked it could be.

Rasheed Walker and Caedan Wallace have been perfectly fine at the tackle spots, though Wallace still needs to clean some things up in pass protection. Mike Miranda has made the transition to center well enough. Juice Scruggs and Wilson have been solid and showed improvements in game two. Still, this group can be and should be better than simply "fine". This is pound for pound the most talented group that James Franklin has had upfront, combined with who we think is his best offensive line coach yet in Phil Trautwein. Something feels like it's going to click into place soon with this group, but it hasn't happened just yet.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below if you agree with our grades.