Lions back to the big-play life­style

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Mark Wo­gen­rich Morn­ing Call re­porter Mark Wo­gen­rich can be reached at 610-820-6588 or at mwogen­[email protected]

Plenty to sift through fol­low­ing Penn State’s 45-13 win over Buf­falo on Satur­day. Here’s a pick-six’s worth.

How to eval­u­ate the run game? Quar­ter­back Sean Clif­ford rushed for more yards (51) than all four run­ning backs com­bined (39). Fur­ther, the Lions’ back­field av­er­aged 3.5 yards per carry on just 11 at­tempts. What hap­pened?

Fol­low­ing an opener in which they com­bined for six touch­downs and a pre­sea­son in which they made bold prediction­s, the run­ning backs were cu­ri­ously un­der­used and in­ef­fec­tive. Coach James Franklin de­ferred to Buf­falo and its coach, Lance Leipold.

“You don’t win as many games as their head coach has won with­out hav­ing re­ally good plans, and I thought that they had a great plan for us in the first half,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of Buf­falo, be­gin­ning what be­came a postgame theme.

Sure, Buf­falo com­mit­ted it­self to shut­ting out Penn State’s run game, adding de­fend­ers to the flow and play­ing “down­hill and phys­i­cal,” as Franklin said. That re­sulted in seven tack­les for loss, one more than Michigan had against Penn State last sea­son.

While ac­knowl­edg­ing that the line could have fin­ished blocks bet­ter, Franklin also said that Buf­falo’s ap­proach forced quar­ter­back Sean Clif­ford to beat the de­fense by throw­ing. Clif­ford in the sec­ond half be­gan find­ing re­ceivers open in those spa­ces va­cated by safeties, no­tably tight end Pat Freier­muth, who caught eight passes for 99 yards and two touch­downs.

But Clif­ford also tucked the ball of­ten (per­haps too of­ten) in the run game. He fin­ished with 11 car­ries, the same num­ber as his four backs com­bined, be­cause of that. Mak­ing the right read in Penn State’s of­fense is a skill that re­quires prac­tice and mas­tery. If Clif­ford can learn that in a 32point win, the first-half strug­gle will have been suc­cess­ful.

“I’m pleased with my runs, but I would say my pocket move­ment needs to im­prove,” Clif­ford said. “I felt like, when I got backed up, I got happy feet back there. I need to sit in there and re­ally make the play when it’s sup­posed to be made.”

So what hap­pened in the first half, and at half­time? Cor­ner­back John Reid said that play­ers were “riled up” at half­time, not at the score­board (Buf­falo led 10-7) but at their ef­fort.

“We just hold our­selves to a re­ally high stan­dard and we weren’t meet­ing it in the first half,” said Reid, whose thirdquar­ter in­ter­cep­tion re­turn for a touch­down changed the game.

Penn State’s first half was dot­ted with mis­takes, in­con­sis­ten­cies and con­fu­sion. On of­fense, two line­men com­mit­ted hold­ing penal­ties (both de­clined) on the same play, which fol­lowed an in­el­i­gi­blere­ceiver penalty. The drive ended with a 26-yard punt.

And on de­fense, the Lions gave up scor­ing drives of 19 and 10 plays, al­low­ing Buf­falo to beat them seven times on 12 third-down con­ver­sions. On one play, Buf­falo’s Jaret Pat­ter­son took a screen pass 19 yards for a 3rd-and-18 con­ver­sion.

With eight cap­tains, Penn State had no short­age of half­time voices.

“Guys were re­ally step­ping up, say­ing, ‘This is not us, we’re bet­ter than this,’ ” de­fen­sive tackle Robert Wind­sor said. “And we made our ad­just­ments.”

Back to the big-play game: Buf­falo out­gained Penn State by 72 yards, had eight more first downs and held an as­ton­ish­ing 25-minute ad­van­tage in time of pos­ses­sion. Penn State’s stat crew couldn’t find a lower time of pos­ses­sion (17:28) since at least 1993.

That should have pro­duced a closer game. But, as it did in 2016, Penn State re­lied on chunk plays to score.

Four of Penn State’s five of­fen­sive touch­downs cov­ered 23 plays or longer, and the fifth (Noah Cain’s 2-yard run) was set up by Clif­ford’s 56-yard run. The Lions didn’t score a touch­down on an of­fen­sive se­ries longer than 5 plays or 2 min­utes. Three se­ries lasted un­der a minute.

Mean­while, the Lions con­verted just 2 of 9 third-down at­tempts and are 3-for-17 on the sea­son. So they’re wary of con­tin­u­ing with such ex­tremes. “We av­er­aged over seven yards per play, but it was too in­con­sis­tent,” Franklin said. “It was ei­ther a touch­down or, a lot times, three-and-out.”

Block­ing re­ceivers: Ja­han Dot­son, who caught two touch­down passes Satur­day, and KJ Ham­ler both were down­field on Freier­muth’s 28yard touch­down catch in the third quar­ter. Freier­muth be­gan the fourth-and-two play with a one-handed grab, con­verted the first down, then fol­lowed blocks from Dot­son and Ham­ler into the end zone. Which he ap­pre­ci­ated. “They’re def­i­nitely not big, but they’re strong and phys­i­cal and ex­plo­sive,” Freier­muth said of Dot­son and Ham­ler. “They don’t take any­thing from any­body. They are not go­ing to lose their one-onones.”

Can’t es­cape McSor­ley: Fol­low­ing the opener, Clif­ford laughed at a ques­tion com­par­ing him again to for­mer quar­ter­back Trace McSor­ley. He said he ex­pected it.

But when McSor­ley came up Satur­day night, it wasn’t the me­dia’s fault. Freier­muth, seated next to Clif­ford in the post-game in­ter­view session, de­cided to have some fun with his new quar­ter­back.

“Cliff is def­i­nitely not as fast as Trace,” Freier­muth said of Clif­ford’s 56-yard run, on which he was tack­led at the 2-yard line. “Trace would have scored on that.”

Re­sponded Clif­ford, “That is so wild. I’m not say­ing any­thing good about you any­more, buddy.”

Three-and-out

1. The Lions man­aged just one sack against Buf­falo’s vet­eran of­fen­sive line.

2. Penn State’s com­bined 124 points is its high­est twogame to­tal to start a sea­son since 1894, when they scored 132.

3. Kick­ers Jake Pine­gar and Jor­dan Stout are a per­fect 20-for-20 on field goals and ex­tra points through two games. Fur­ther, Stout has 20 touch­backs in 21 kick­offs.

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