Penn State Football came from behind to knock off Purdue in thrilling fashion, 35-31, in the season-opener on Thursday night and the performance was quite telling about the state of the Nittany Lions.
Despite this being his sixth season, quarterback Sean Clifford was as inconsistent as ever, the defense tightened the screws in the game’s biggest moments, and the Lions’ special teams have the chance to be, well, special.
Here are five takeaways from Penn State Football’s win over Purdue:
1. Sean Clifford has reached his ceiling
The Sean Clifford rollercoaster looks like it will continue this season.
There were a few throws that were great, like the one to tight end Brenton Strange to end the first half. However, just as much the pick six thrown in the fourth quarter may have been one of the worst throws I have ever seen.
Clifford had Mitchell Tinsley wide open over the middle of the field, and overthrew him by what felt like 20 yards.
Nittany Lion fans had the brief excitement to start the second half, when Clifford went to the locker room with what we found out later was cramps. Prized freshman Drew Allar came in and went 2-of-4 passing for 26 yards, and looked sharp.
Allar’s most impressive throw was a ball to Tyler Warren that was dropped down the sideline which would have kept the drive alive and put the Nittany Lions in scoring position.
Clifford struggled mightily in the second half, he just looked a little bit scared back in the pocket. This isn’t something that you expect or want to see from a guy who has been in college for six years and entering his fourth year as a starter.
Later, Clifford redeemed himself with a calm eight-play 80-yard drive to take the lead with 57 seconds left.
The public probably views the Clifford experience as entertaining. But, for Penn State fans it is just frustrating and certainly shortening our lifespans.
Clifford reminds me of the Buccaneers version of Jameis Winston, where his play can be incredible one moment but lead to disaster the next.
2. Drops are a huge issue
I tallied six drops in the matchup with the Boilermakers, coming from four different Penn State receivers.
Keandre Lambert-Smith had 3, Washington 1, Wallace 1, and Washington 1. The major issue is that they all seemed to come at the worst times.
Many were on 3rd down and would have given momentum to the drive.
Keandre Lambert-Smith seemed to be having the most trouble and three drops in the same game is a reason for concern. Although only a Sophomore, Lambert-Smith showed later in the game with his impressive touchdown run that he does have the talent to make a play once the ball is in his hands.
The key is that he actually has to catch the ball to make a play. The Tyler Warren drop was one of the more frustrating plays.
Here, Drew Allar is playing his first college snaps and puts what could be argued as the best thrown ball of the night between two defenders along the sideline and Warren drops the ball, ultimately leading to a Nittany Lion punt.
Not just focusing on those two but the fact that there were four different receivers who dropped a pass is a cause for concern going forward. If it was all just Lambert-Smith, we could say that he just needs to work on it a little bit but that it isn’t a team issue.
Having key players like even Parker Washington dropping passes makes it seem like this is a team issue.
You can’t afford to give up free catches in big games on the road, this will be something to watch moving forward especially with a trip to Auburn on the schedule in 2 weeks.
The Running Back rotation isn’t working
Penn State Football has had an issue in the past where talented freshmen running backs come in and shine brighter than the upperclassmen.
We saw it with Noah Cain taking the job of Ricky Slade, then it was Keyvone Lee taking Cain’s job as the best back, and now it looks like we have something similar.
The running back rotation was in full swing against Purdue with a balanced number of carries between Allen (8), Lee (9), and Singleton (9).
No back had more than 30 yards and the team itself rushed for 98 total yards. That simply isn’t going to cut it when conference play starts.
Part of the issue is having a different running back on every possession. It didn’t feel like any of the backs were able to get in a rhythm and I believe this has to do with the rotation.
Penn State Football likes to show loyalty to upperclassmen but in this game it appears that Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton are simply just better RBs than Keyvone Lee. It’s not to say that Lee isn’t a good player, he did in fact catch the wheel route on the last drive to win the game. It just doesn’t seem like he is as explosive hitting the holes as the young freshman and with the offensive line still being an uncertainty, being quick to the hole will be important.
Lee can still be used as a great short yardage back and has experience pass blocking, but Singleton and Allen should be the 2 featured backs getting most of the carries.
Allen showed some good flashes in the running game and had the highest average of the three backs, but Singleton showed the most ability in pass blocking.
Going forward Franklin needs to just play his best players, because establishing the run is the only way that this offense can improve from last season.
Special Teams is a strength
One of the star players for this game has to go to transfer punter Barney Amor.
Entering this season Amor played 1 season at Colgate in 2019 punting 63 times with an average of 42.1 yards per punt.
Many may recognize him from the viral scholarship video just a few weeks ago where he was given the full ride from none other than Eli Manning.
Thursday night, I thought Amor was nothing short of spectacular. He had eight punts averaging 46.9 yards per punt and downed three inside the 20. There should have been one more where in the second half Amor put a beautiful ball inside the five yard-line that rolled sideways to the one before someone on the punt coverage knocked the ball into the endzone for a touchback.
He seems to have the precision of the last two great Nittany Lion punters in Blake Gillikin and Jordan Stout, while also having the leg to flip the field if necessary. The ball placed at the 3 yard in the second quarter helped the Nittany Lion defense be able to pin their ears back and ultimately led to a TD for Penn State when they got the ball back with a short field. While punting might not be the most flashy part of the team, having a great punter will be huge when competing in field position battles in the Big 10.
Secondary is Hot and Cold
Trying to figure out the Penn State Football secondary was an adventure in this game.
We knew going in that this was supposed to be the most talented and deepest area of the Nittany Lion defense.
However, it was evident early that the talent corners were struggling with the quick screens and slants by the Purdue offense. It seemed like the penalties were also an issue early in the game. The third quarter was probably the worst showing with players constantly getting burned and or committing penalties.
Manny Diaz made adjustments in the fourth, bringing more pressure from his linebackers as well as more corner and safety blitzes.
One strong component I did notice was that for the majority of the game the secondary was excellent at making tackles in space when they needed to.
There were a few instances of getting caught by stiff arms, but it seemed they were better equipped this year than in years past. The dropped interception by Joey Porter Jr. in the first half was a killer and would have completely pushed the momentum in the Nittany Lions favor had he been able to pull it off.
While the talent is there for this secondary, the penalties are something that needs to be cleaned up moving forward. This could have just been first game issues that were exaggerated because of how much Purdue throws the ball.
We will find out over the next few weeks if the secondary was overrated heading into the season or if the Boilermakers were just a bad measuring stick.