Penn State looks to end bumpy start as Maryland visits

Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) celebrates his fourth-quarter touchdown reception Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade (24) watches during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. Ohio State won 38-25.

On the first play of the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to Ohio State, Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson ran under a Sean Clifford pass and left the ground, for the ball, on even terms with Buckeyes cornerback Shaun Wade.

Wade will be a first-round and probably top-10 pick in the NFL draft next spring.

Dotson came down with the ball, for a 37-yard gain.

On the next snap, Dotson ran a similar route, again outmaneuvered Wade, stuck one hand way up in the air and … Clifford’s pass hit Dotson’s hand and stuck, as if he was wearing an outfielder’s glove. He turned it into a 21-yard touchdown.

“I don’t think I have anything that rivals that catch,’’ Penn State receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield said Thursday, and Stubblefield won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s best wideout, as a player at Purdue in 2004.

“That catch was legit. … That was nasty.’’

It’s becoming commonplace. Watch the best teams in college football right now — Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State — and you could argue the thing that pops most is receiver play. Crazy, one-handed grabs and physics-defying body control have become nearly as common as monster dunks in basketball.

Alabama’s top three WRs this year have 105 catches for 1,833 yards and 15 touchdowns in six games, even though the best of them, Jaylen Waddle, missed most of the last two games and is out for the year.

This after Bama had two first-round WRs in the 2020 draft, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy.

Clemson has sent DeAndre Hopkins (maybe the best WR on Earth), Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams to the NFL of late. The Tigers played without all-world QB Trevor Lawrence last week — and their three starting WRs combined for 20 catches from his backup.

Ohio State had eight players catch passes against Penn State last week. Freshman Julian Fleming, the top-ranked WR in his high school class and a Penn State recruiting target from eighth grade on, was not among them. He didn’t play a snap.

You get the idea — it’s a pitch-and-catch game. Since Chris Godwin left for the NFL in 2017, Penn State hasn’t kept up, in recruiting receivers or developing them.

K.J. Hamler, class of 2017, became a dynamic playmaker and is now with the NFL Denver Broncos, but managed a relatively modest 69 college receptions.

Penn State recruited the No. 1 wideout in the high school class of 2018, Justin Shorter, but he never got traction at Penn State and is now at Florida.

Four-star recruits Daniel George (2018) and John Dunmore (2019), and next-tier prospects like Cam Sullivan-Brown and Mac Hippenhammer haven’t done much. Dunmore and Hippenhammer have left the program.

Stubblefield is the fourth receivers coach in four years.

“We've had a decent amount of turnover at that position," Franklin said this week. "It's created some challenges for us with stability in that room, and it's affected recruiting a little bit as well.’’

Yet the lone, narrow ray of light from the Ohio State game comes from the wideouts.

Down 21-6, Clifford started the second half getting rid of the ball quickly and working the middle of the field, 18 yards to tight end Pat Freiermuth, than 20 to Parker Washington, 12 to KeAndre Lambert-Smith, 11 to Dotson and Dotson again for 14 more, to the end zone.

The Lions scored three second-half touchdowns (all by Dotson), and got points out of four of five possessions in one stretch.

“Schematically, we went back to some things that worked for us in the first half,’’ Franklin said afterward, weirdly, since the schemes did not produce first-half results.

Dotson, who had eight catches for 144 yards, looks ready to be a star. Washington, a true freshman, has started both games. Lambert-Smith, a bigger recruit than Washington, will start Saturday against Maryland.

Franklin this week pronounced redshirt freshman TJ Jones ready to contribute.

“We have goals that we set in our room,’’ Stubblefield said. “We were close to hitting them last week, but we didn’t hit all of them.

“The guys are improving mentally. I do know that the guys will be prepared, so I’m excited for this weekend.’’