It is no secret that the Penn State offense has made great strides since the 2020 season. The Nittany Lions were 0-5 a season ago and have completely flipped that 5-0 in 2021. While most of that success is likely attributed to the strong defense, the offense has also done some great things throughout the first five games. Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford has spread the ball around with 13 different players having at least one reception. Let’s take a look at the Penn State offense through the first five games.
Penn State Offense Much Improved
The first five games this season are much more fun to watch for Penn State fans. The 0-5 start to 2020 was not ideal, but the Nittany Lions went on to win four straight and continue that winning in 2021. Arguably, the defense has been the deciding factor in these wins, but the offense has also done some very good things.
The Receivers are Getting Involved
The Penn State receiving group was the most improved in the 2020 season. Highlighted by Jahan Dotson, the receivers were a very bright spot in a dismal 2020 season. This trend has continued in 2021. The trio of Dotson, Parker Washington, and Keandre Lambert-Smith has been a constant for Clifford in an offense that changed drastically in the off-season. Dotson has 35 receptions for 446 yards and six touchdowns through five games. That beats his touchdown total in all 13 games in 2019 and puts him two behind last year’s total.
Washington had a solid freshman season in 2020, with 36 receptions and six touchdowns. The sophomore is right on pace with his freshman totals, so that was not beginner’s luck. Through the first five games in 2021 Washington has 25 receptions for 331 yards. He also has two touchdowns and is averaging 13.2 yards per catch. The sophomore has become a very reliable second target for Clifford.
Rounding out the most-used receivers is sophomore Lambert-Smith and he has really come to life. He only played in six games as a freshman last season and had 15 receptions and zero touchdowns. This year he has shown he can consistently catch the ball and has 13 receptions through five games. Two behind last year’s total. Lambert-Smith also already has a touchdown this season. Look for him to continue to improve and be a nice additional target for Clifford as the season progresses.
Not only have the wide receivers continued to improve, but the tight ends are much more involved this season. Tyler Warren, Brenton Strange, and Theo Johnson have really come to life under Yurcich. The group has three touchdowns this season. Strange has two and Johnson has one.
Clifford Has Improved
New offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has implemented an offense that seems to be much more Clifford’s style. Through the first five games in 2020, Clifford threw eight interceptions and 11 touchdowns. He has drastically reduced that interception total to three through the first five games and he didn’t throw one until game three against Auburn. It was a hail mary type throw to end the first half. He is making better decisions under Yurcich and looks much calmer. Clifford also is under center every now and then, which is something that Penn State fans probably never thought they would see. The senior still has improvements to make, but he has gotten better each game.
The Run Game Needs to Come to Life
The run game was essentially non-existent through the first four games of the season. It finally showed improvement against Indiana on Saturday. The Nittany Lion rushing attack didn’t record a 100-yard rushing game against Wisconsin, Auburn, or Villanova and Villanova should have been one to get the run game going. However, there was at least one rushing touchdown in each of those games.
The Penn State offense looked much more balanced against Indiana last week. The offense had 199 yards through the air and 209 yards on the ground. Unfortunately, no rushing touchdowns came of the good day for the running backs. The offensive line just hasn’t been getting the push needed for the talented Penn State backs to get in the open field. Further, starting running back Noah Cain has been slowed by a lingering injury that kept him out of pretty much all of 2020. The rushing attack will need to continue to improve to get past No. 3 Iowa this weekend.
The Nittany Lions go to Iowa this weekend for a top-five matchup. It will be a very tough test for a Penn State offense that is just starting to have all of the pieces come together. The offensive line will have to continue to be strong in the passing game. Clifford has had a lot of time to throw. This will be key on Saturday against a very strong Iowa defense. Further, the offensive line will need to improve dramatically this week for the rushing attack to succeed. It will likely come down to the Penn State defense, but it’s up for the challenge.