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For Nits, red zone becomes Red Sea

PSU football commentary

Nebraska linebackers Will Honas (3), Luke Reimer (28), and safety Marquel Dismuke (9) tackle Penn State quarterback Will Levis (7) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Lincoln, Neb., Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. Nebraska won 30-23. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

When the book is someday written on “Inventing New Ways to Lose,” presuming he look back and laugh about it, say 20-plus years from now, James Franklin could provide a chapter on Penn State’s 2020 visit to Nebraska.

When, for the second straight week, the Nittany Lion offense gave up a touchdown.

You expect that to happen from a defense, but when you’re now trying to overcompensate for touchdowns allowed by your offense, well, you thought COVID-19 presented challenges.

Let’s consider some numbers that added up to Saturday’s 30-23 loss, sinking the Lions’ record to 0-4 and leaving them on the verge of the worst start in their history.

Which goes back to 1887.

Though the 1887 team had its way with Bucknell, shutting out their Lewisburg neighbors in the only two games of the season, suffice to say those Nits would have settled for the 501 yards this year’s entry rolled up against the Cornhuskers.

Not to mention running off 91 plays, and, the most staggering statistic of all in victory, amassing 30 first downs.

That doesn’t happen in a loss without some real cooperation from another facet of the organization.

In fact, this defeat was the second time this year the Nittany Lions outgained their opponent by 200-plus yards (the other being at Indiana). To put that in perspective, according to the Big Ten Network, that has only happened two other times in this century.

When a team marches up and down the field all day and doesn’t win, the focal points are the head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback.

Franklin summed up the day with the obligatory “it starts with me” comment, but he also benched starting quarterback Sean Clifford, presumably indefinitely, and will deal with first-year offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, whom he lured away from Minnesota, more privately.

Penn State somehow had the ball for 25 plays in the Nebraska red zone and managed to score just one touchdown from that range, instead settling for three field goals before coming up empty twice with the game on the line.

And as much as the Penn State defense has been totally ill prepared early in games, the unit stiffened after Cam Taylor-Britt returned a Clifford interception 55 yards, holding the Huskers to a field goal, and allowed just three points in the second half.

Which means if the offense doesn’t give the ball away, the Lions really allowed 20 points — a winning number.

What wasn’t a winning number was Penn State’s red-zone inefficiency.

Backup quarterback Will Levis — whom Franklin likely will name the starter as early as Tuesday — injected the same kind of life into the offense that he did a year ago at Ohio State.

He alertly ran when the opening presented and threw well enough for 219 yards to rally the Nits from a 27-6 halftime deficit, cutting the lead to 30-23 with 9:20 left.

The defense then gave the offense two more tries, and each time the offense drove to first downs at the Nebraska 11 and 9 but was unable to tie it.

Strangely, the Lions went away from what was working. They mixed the run and the pass nicely throughout the second half but then got away from the run — even with the bullish Levis at the helm.

Instead, Ciarrocca called for these ill-advised and poorly-executed fade patterns, which would only work if the Nits had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing flanker.

Penn State’s last eight plays from inside the Nebraska 15 were incomplete passes including one sack. Suddenly, the run game that got them down there — or even the threat of it — disappeared.

There was very little ingenuity, misdirection or money call when it was needed most.

You’d think their All-American tight end in Pat Freiermuth could be anchored at the goal line — like the Kansas City Chiefs do with Travis Kelce — and probably draw double coverage, opening up other possibilities.

“The red-zone offense is about running the ball and being detailed in the passing game,” Franklin said. “All the windows are shrunk down. It magnifies if you’re good in the red zone. We didn’t put the ball in position where our guys had a legitimate chance to get it.”

Levis may turn out to be a better option than Clifford. We’ll find out. He said he didn’t get many repetitions with the first-team offense last week — another curious strategy — so these next few games will serve as a more legitimate evaluation of whether he can be precise in the red zone and give the QB position some needed hope.

But one thing seems clear: If the play-calling isn’t better than it was Saturday, Tom Brady wouldn’t make much difference.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com

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