It may not look like it when watching a game live. Penn State fans often get frustrated when the offense has a fast start and then stalls in the third quarter. The thing is though, Sean Clifford and the Nittany Lion offense are improving every game. It may not be for the entire game, but this is right where they should be midway through the season. The days of beating teams by 30 points or more are mainly behind as Penn State gets into the trenches of Big Ten play. The good thing? The Nittany Lion offense has been able to finish tough games. Hopefully, this trend will continue throughout the rest of the Penn State season.
Sean Clifford and the Nittany Lion Offense
Clifford and the other three quarterbacks behind him are not older than a redshirt sophomore. The runningbacks are the same, not one is older than a redshirt sophomore. Further, the main wide receiver group has one person over a redshirt sophomore, Dan Chisena who is a redshirt senior and mainly plays special teams. This does not even include the tight ends. The Penn State offense is very young. They are still learning, growing, and improving. All at the right time.
Beginning of the Season
The Nittany Lion offense outscored their first three opponents 141-30. Those opponents were Idaho, Buffalo, and Pitt. Over those three games, Clifford threw for 781 yards and at least 222 yards in each. The quarterback rushed for an additional 113 yards throughout the three. Now, those teams are not the best. Idaho is currently 3-5 and 2-3 in the Big Sky Conference in the FCS. Buffalo is 3-4 and 1-2 in the MAC. Finally, Pitt, the best opponent out of the three, is 5-2 and 2-1 in the ACC.
Clifford and the Nittany Lion offense did what they were expected and supposed to do against those non-conference opponents. Penn State threw the ball efficiently and ran the ball well with all four running backs most of the game. The interesting thing about all three games is that there was at least one quarter that dropped in offensive efficiency. Against Idaho, it was the third quarter. When the Nittany Lions played Buffalo it was the second quarter. Finally against Pitt, it was the fourth quarter.
In each instance, Penn State had the lead so this could contribute. Also, adjustments by the opposing team during halftime are a possible contribution to this fall off. Are these things minor in games when the Nittany Lions won and in two-out-of-three won comfortably? Yes, but this trend continues into Big Ten play. Even still, improvements and growth have been evident over the first part of conference play.
Start of Conference Play
Penn State started Big Ten play how they left off against non-conference opponents. Clifford and the offense scored fast and often against both Maryland and Purdue. The Nittany Lions outscored Maryland 59-0 in a game that analysts thought would be at least competitive. Then, returned home to beat Purdue 35-7. Both of these teams are 1-3 in the Big Ten and neither have an overall winning record. These scores were expected from the fast Penn State offense.
Remember in non-conference play when there was a quarter where the Nittany Lion offense dropped off in production? That issue carried over into these high-scoring games as well. It was the third quarter in both. Granted the Nittany Lions accumulated a nice cushion throughout the first and second quarters so it was okay.
The Tough Tests
Those two games were the last of the “easy” games for awhile. This is where fans can really see the continued improvement and growth in Clifford and the rest of the young Nittany Lion offense. The first real tests of the season started back-to-back. The young Penn State offense traveled first to Kinnick Stadium, at night, to take on Iowa. This is where Penn State fans got a true glimpse into what the offense, specifically true freshman running back Noah Cain, is capable of.
It was a true Big Ten defensive battle, which Penn State won 17-12 in a very tough environment. How does this low-scoring game show improvement? It was a tough Iowa defense that is ranked in the top five in points allowed. The game was on the line late and Cain and the offense finished it out strong. The same thing against Michigan. A ranked Big Ten opponent that was back and forth in the second half. This time KJ Hamler got the job done to seal the game 28-21. Both games still saw production drop in the third quarter, but when it counted the offense got the job done.
Now is when Clifford and the Nittany Lions have to keep their foot on the gas. This weekend Penn State travels to Michigan State. The Spartans are a deceiving 4-3. Michigan State is coming off of a bye week where they lost the two previous games to Ohio State and Wisconsin. The Spartans have been hit by the injury bug this season, but even still with the Land Grant Trophy on the line, the Nittany Lions can’t take Michigan State lightly.
There are upsets in college football every week, which is why this is the perfect time for Clifford and the Nittany Lion offense to be hitting a nice growth spurt. Fans need to remember that this team, especially the offense, is very young. Making the fact that Penn State currently sits 7-0 that much greater. It is time to be patient and enjoy watching the improvements each week.