Penn State’s final grades for 2020 are in:
In theory, this was supposed to be a run-first operation, with a squadron of elite RBs behind a good, veteran OL, feeding the play-action and RPO ideas of new OC Kirk Ciarrocca.
Then a health issue ended Journey Brown’s career, an injury in the opening minutes of the season ended Noah Cain’s year, and the RB group went from explosive and deep to not so much. The O-line was dominant at times, inept at others.
By midseason, QB Sean Clifford appeared to need a reboot, and head coach James Franklin gave him one, starting run specialist Will Levis Nov. 21 vs. Iowa. Levis is a power runner and a short-yardage weapon, but his grasp of the passing game still needs work. Clifford finished the year as the starter and playing better.
The WR group was supposed to be a serious weakness heading into the season, but junior Jahan Dotson emerged as a great one, and freshman Parker Washington emerged as a future great one.
Ciarrocca ends the year a question mark. He never dazzled the way Joe Moorhead did from the beginning of his time here, and Ciarrocca’s apparent love for low-percentage pass routes was a problem that was never solved.
Bottom line in numbers: Penn State was 110th in the country in turnover margin, 105th in the red zone, and 108th in sacks allowed.
Average weekly grade: C. Looking back on it now: C-minus.
Surprising, in retrospect, how similar Penn State was on both sides of the ball: On a snap-for-snap basis, pretty good. In terms of translating that edge to the scoreboard and into wins, pretty crappy.
The Lions were 17th in the country in total defense, and 23th nationally in the combined metric-of-metrics by the Football Outsiders website. They were also 104th in the country in the red zone, and 57th in scoring defense.
The young secondary, redshirt freshman CB Joey Porter Jr. in particular, was a pleasant surprise, mirroring the young WRs on offense. But in the home loss to Maryland week three, at which point the season could still have been turned around, the DBs looked lost. They allowed 11 yards per throw, including first-half TD pass plays of 34, 42 and 62 yards.
Also like the offense, the D achieved exactly what it was supposed to be - fast, athletic, attacking - in the week-seven romp at Rutgers. Of course, it was Rutgers, and Penn State was 1-5 going in.
Bottom line in numbers: Penn State held Nebraska to 298 yards, held Indiana to 211 (the best defensive per-game average in the country was 263.5), and held Iowa to less than five years per play. But the Lions yielded, respectively, 30, 28 (in regulation) and 41 points in those games, and lost all three.
Average weekly grade: C. Looking back on it now: B-minus.
Reflective of the season’s schizophrenia, specials got the season’s only A (Michigan State) and only F, week one, against Indiana:
“A disaster. Oh-for-three field goals, one of them a gift 25-yarder. Punt returners crashing into each other. Running into the kicker. Etc., etc.”
Early in the year, James Franklin said his team’s unwillingness to return kicks, rather than fair-catching them, was driven by analytics.
Later in the year, the Lions got more aggressive, resulting in punt returns of 81 and 50 yards, the former a TD, by Dotson, and a 100-yard kickoff return TD by Lamont Wade.
Kick coverage was good all year. Kicking was just OK. Overall the specials were nothing special.
Average weekly grade: C. Looking back on it now: C-plus.
Now we come to the crux of this exercise. I’ve been accused of grading Franklin and Co. too harshly, a first.
The highest grade the coaches got in the five losses was a C-minus, the highest they got overall was a B week nine. The nine grades average out to a C-minus.
Week one vs. Indiana, Devyn Ford scored a TD he shouldn’t have - one of a dozen dumb things about that game, any one of which would have changed the outcome of the game and perhaps the season.
That became a metaphor. Week after week, there were bad and costly and seemingly obvious game-management decisions. Getting that stuff consistently right is much harder than is commonly perceived, but overall this was an inefficient, mistake-prone, underachieving team.
How much blame does Franklin get for that?
Undeniably, the hand he was dealt was harsh: Micah Parsons leaving. Journey Brown and Noah Cain unavailable. No spring practice. Four new coaches, including the OC. The need, for health reasons, for Franklin to completely isolate from his family. An apparent and baffling surfeit of false-positive tests among the players and coaches.
Still, Penn State played all nine games, and as far as we can tell nobody missed one for COVID-19.
So how much credit does Franklin get for that?
I was expecting to change the grade, but honestly can’t see it.
Average weekly grade: C-minus. Looking back on it now: C-minus.