Penn State cruises out of the non-conference portion of the schedule undefeated, fresh off a win over a lustily disdained opponent, heading into a relaxing bye week.
One sobering bit of news is that so far the offense has largely the same profile, the same strengths and weaknesses, as last year’s.
The running game has been quite good, if perhaps not good enough to drive the bus against elite competition. The passing game has been just OK.
The Lions continue to be red-zone efficient (12 tries, nine touchdowns and three field goals) and third-down anemic. Opponents have run more plays and possessed the ball longer, but Penn State continues to explode semi-regularly; the Nittany Lions have had 16 plays of 25 yards or more in three games, eight of 40 yards or more, and that doesn’t count two 23-yard touchdowns.
STATE COLLEGE — If you think Pitt and Penn State should play every year forever, imagine how…
Quality of opposition is a factor, to put it mildly, although that’s generally true in college football in September.
After games with Idaho and Buffalo, quarterback Sean Clifford was fourth in the country in passing efficiency, ahead of folks like Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
Now Clifford ranks 22nd, after a 14-for-30, 222-yard, no-touchdown effort in Saturday’s defeat of Pittsburgh.
His rating, which is really a group rating for the passing game, remains good (172.5), but not good enough for Penn State to go where it wants to.
No running back has emerged, but four have had their moments. Some deal for the wide receivers; none has had more than four catches in a game. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is elite, but Pitt managed to turn him mostly into a blocker Saturday.
That was to give Clifford time to “take his shots down the field,’’ which Penn State did five times on first down in the Pitt game, deep, low-percentage routes against a good secondary. Oh-for-five, and second-down-and-10, every time. When they say an offense is, “off schedule,’’ that’s what they’re talking about. To say that has a lot to do with the third-down problem is understating it.
“I missed my shots today and that’s on me,’’ Clifford said after the game. “I need to have an enhanced focus during the week on (deep passes).
“You know, you get used to hitting big plays. … I think that I got a little comfortable, and I just need to focus up.’’
The other essential element of the Joe Moorhead offense that hasn’t been there is Clifford as a runner in the read-option game. Clifford does lead the team in rushing attempts, but most of those have been scrambles.
He’s been fine at that, and displayed exceptional straight-ahead speed in a 59-yard run against Buffalo. But he’s mostly opted out of planned runs in the read-option game.
Clifford said last week that, over time, he’ll get better knowing when to run.
“Each read is different in its own regard,” Clifford said. “You’re reading the demeanor of guys and where guys are on the field. There’s just a lot that goes into it.”
It’s hard to remember now, but Trace McSorley struggled with just that in his first year as Penn State’s starting QB, 2016.
McSorley wasn’t fully turned loose, or ready to turn himself loose, as a runner until the overtime win over Minnesota week five of that year. That started a nine-game winning streak that led to the Big Ten title.
These things take time.