Lions back to the big-play lifestyle
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.”
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.