Penn State: 2019 End of Season Review

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James Franklin led the Nittany Lions of Penn State to their third 11-win season in the last four years. Keep reading below for my 2019 Season Review!

Review: The Offense

Passing Attack:

Sean Clifford season totals:

59.2 completion %, 2654 py, 23 TD, 7 INT, QBR: 101.1, 405 rush yards, 5 rush TD

Not too shabby for his first year as a starter. From his first game against Idaho to his final against Memphis, Cliff’s debut year was definitely a rollercoaster. Each game from UB to Maryland, one could say Sean steadily improved. But then, in the second half against Purdue, we began to see struggles that would plague Clifford for the rest of the season. For instance, an example of a consistent 2019 struggle could be seen on this snapshot of a 3rd & 14 play in the 4th quarter against Purdue:

And which struggle would that be? I’ve mentioned it several times in several pieces I’ve written: KJ-dependence. In the play above, KJ is running a crossing route about 9 yards upfield. Jahan Dotson (yellow arrow), is running an in-route roughly 17 yards upfield (beyond the first down marker). In the first half, Clifford hit Jahan on almost an identical play for a TD:

Instead of trusting himself and throwing with anticipation to Jahan behind the LB’s, Clifford panicked and just dumped it off to KJ. Sometimes, like in this play against Iowa, it pays off (KJ broke three dude’s ankles after receiving the ball five yards behind the first down marker):

But dependence on that type of play isn’t sustainable, especially when you consider that KJ is off to the NFL. Now, we all loved the Human Joystick; he almost single-handily won the game for PSU against Michigan. But in far too many instances, Sean tried to force the ball to him, for better or worse.

The Problem

As the season progressed, it seems Sean regressed. With the exception of the MSU game, Clifford’s performances after the first half of the Whiteout (Minnesota, Indiana, OSU and Memphis) were largely forgettable. Could a lot of this regression be due to Ricky Rahne? Maybe. But wrong decisions in RPO, bonehead picks, and KJ-dependence were things within the Ohio kid’s control. Lastly, Sean capped off 2019 with an abysmal performance against Memphis in The Cotton Bowl. In Dallas, Clifford showed you all three of the problems mentioned above and more.

Furthermore, some would argue Sean’s KJ (and Fiermuth) dependence was a result of an otherwise anemic WR group. Shorter was producing so little he entered the portal, Hippenhammer and George took turns rubbing butter on each other’s hands, and Jahan did well, but simply was not targeted enough.

The Solution

Penn State OC Kirk Ciarocca. Credit: 247Sports

You’ll hear this a crap-ton this offseason, but the development of Sean Clifford under new OC Kirk Ciarrocca is vital to PSU’s success in 2020. If Ciarrocca could work some of the magic he did with Tanner Morgan at Minnesota or Zach Terrell at WMU, State would be a legitimate playoff contender. In contrast, if Sean retains these flaws, PSU will keep losing to elite opponents.

Rushing Attack

For as poor as the pass-pro was, the run blocking was excellent for the 2019 Nittany Lions.

The four backs (Cain, Slade, Brown, and Ford) totaled: 312 att, 1841 yards, 25 TD, 5.9 yd/att. The four-headed monster that was the 2019 running back room did a solid job out the backfield. Namely, Journey Brown and Noah Cain — who separated themselves PSU’s two best rushers.

The #LawnBoyz had themselves a field day to close out the season in the Cotton Bowl. You could read about that here. Nittany Nation should be immensely excited to see these four boys run behind a veteran offensive line next year.

Review: The Defense

Welp. This defense completely fooled us:

After entering the Minnesota game as a top 10 defense in terms of scoring, Brent Pry’s unit imploded. I have consistently said it: the Gophers exposed something on film regarding the Lions’ zone defense. And thus, everyone after them took advantage of it, with tremendous success. Following the loss in the Twin Cities, PSU went on to allow 27, 28, 6, and 39 points in their last four games.

The Problem

The clear weak point? The secondary. In fact, if you take out Rutgers’ QB performance (because it’s Rutgers), Tanner Morgan, Peyton Ramsay, Justin Fields, and Brady White put up the following combined line on PSU in 4 games:

97/134 (72%(!!)) att/comp, 1352 pass yards, 6 TD, 2 INT for a QBR of 113.5.

That’s awful. Entering the Iowa game, James Franklin said the defense was playing at a “championship” level. If the secondary plays like that in 2020, Penn State won’t sniff a single championship.

The Solution

PSU CB Marquis Wilson (#8)

Brent Pry needs to go back into the lab and reconsider playing such a soft zone — especially when he blitzes. Other than that, Nittany Nation better pray Marquis Wilson and Keaton Ellis turn into true lockdown corners. I think both guys have the size and potential to be All-B1G talent, but I also thought that about Tariq Castro-Fields. And we saw what kind of season he had.

Additionally, it seems like Micah Parsons is primed to have an all-time generational season next year, and that should help everyone involved.

Review: Special Teams

PSU K Jordan Stout (#98)

Man, what a fun first few weeks it was to see the debut of transfer K Jordan Stout. The Touchback Gawd put on a show the first 3 weeks of the season with a 97% touchback percentage and booming a phenomenal 57 yard FG against Pitt:


Following those few exciting weeks, the special teams unit was fairly “chalk.” They didn’t really win Penn State any games, but they didn’t lose them either — and that’s arguably more important. It’s also critical to note: Jake Pinegar markedly improved under Joe Lorig. His FG% went up from 67% (14/24) to 92% (11/12). Seems the 49 yards and under rule will work well.

The Problem

PSU Senior P Blake Gillikin. Credit: Lions247

You know that old cliche, you don’t know whatcha got ’til it’s gone? Well, Blake Gillikin is gone. Happy Valley was very lucky to have an outstanding punter and student-athlete leader for the past 4 years. Now, the Georgia native will have to decide between the NFL and medical school. Additionally, James Franklin and Joe Lorig must now replace an All-B1G potential, 2-time captain. That’s no easy task. I’m old enough to remember when Alex Butterworth botched every other punt.

The Solution

Penn State only has two pure punters currently listed on its roster: Blake and Bradley King. That will soon change with the arrival of a reportedly “can’t miss” punting prospect, Levi Forrest, as a preferred walk-on.

Levi Forrest (left) visits campus with Special Teams coach, Joe Lorig (right). Credit: PennLive

Levi was ranked as the No. 6 punter in the nation, according to Kohl’s Kicking Specialists’ Camp. Forrest will arrive and compete with whom? The Touchback Gawd can also become the Punting Gawd, as Jordan Stout’s leg reportedly translates to excellent punts as well. For State’s sake, one must hope either of the two is at least half the punter Gillikin was.

There you have it. 2019 was supposed to be a “rebuild” year for the Lions, and they went 11-2. 2020 is supposed to be the “real” year, with a majority of starters being 4 or 5-star recruits with legitimate playing experience.

As always, keep it locked on Overtime Heroics all season for more Penn State and college football coverage. Don’t agree with my grades? Let me know on Twitter or our forums!

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Just recently graduated medical school, and will soon start my residency! Huge fan of: Mets baseball, Penn State football, Jets football, Aston Villa FC, Barça, MMA, and Knicks Basketball! Yes, my sports torture me.