New identity imposing Nittany Lions’ will
PSU football commentary
Football teams often talk about an identity.
Through their 0-5 start, the Nittany Lions didn’t have one, other than a losing identity.
They certainly didn’t have a defensive identity as they were lit up for 30 points weekly.
Nor could they throw the ball effectively, even though they were attempting 35 passes per game despite not protecting their quarterbacks and turning them into turnover machines.
And they weren’t a running team, either, having been held to less than 100 yards by Ohio State, Maryland and Iowa.
They’ve found themselves the last two weeks by challenging their offensive line and their defense and committing to a shorter passing game that has allowed Sean Clifford to get rid of the ball quickly.
It’s led to a ball-control offense that has produced two straight road wins, including Saturday’s 23-7 victory at Rutgers.
The stars of the game were the defensive unit, which limited the Scarlet Knights to three out of 15 third-down conversions and one of four on fourth down, and the Lions’ offensive line.
The defense established itself immediately by rejecting a pair of fourth-and-1s from the Rutgers 45 that Greg Schiano felt compelled to attempt rather than punting.
“We were playing a good football team, and we were going to be aggressive,” Schiano said.
Penn State’s defense emerged at Michigan last week when it also stuffed a pair of fourth-and-1s.
“We’re getting back to playing how we’ve played (defensively) for six years,” James Franklin said. “Our defense played extremely well. It’s hard to argue what we’ve done the last two weeks.”
Yes, this was Rutgers, the Lions’ little brother from the East. But the Knights have shown an explosive offense, scored 79 points in the last two weeks and not been held to less than 20 points once this season.
And what goes with a stingy defense? A running game.
The Lions have rushed for 502 yards the last two games with 50 or more carries in both games.
“We’ve gotten back to our mentality — the mentality that Penn State plays with,” tailback Devyn Ford said.
And that mentality is?
“Smash-mouth football,” Ford said. “Run the ball down people’s throats and take their will away.”
The Lions’ intentions were accented by making Rutgers deal with backup quarterback 230-pound Will Levis, who came off the bench to rush 17 times for 65 yards.
Absent researching every game in football history, it’s still safe to suggest it might be the first time ever, or at least since the forward pass had been invented, that a backup quarterback rushed that many times without attempting a single pass.
Franklin acknowledged, “We’ve got to mix some passes in, no doubt, to make sure they respect him” but cited the windy weather as a factor.
Franklin intends continued use of both. Clifford completed 15-of-22 for 133 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
“Early on, in the first half, he played really well,” Franklin said. “Obviously the turnovers, we can’t have them. When he missed today, he missed high, and we’ve got to get those throws down. We have to be push the ball up the field more. We’ve got to be more explosive in the passing game.”
That’s hard to do when your offense doesn’t take deep shots and you’re running the quarterbacks the 25 times they carried Saturday.
Either way, the last two weeks have restored needed confidence.
“I continue go back to … we still have the guys that were 11-2 and won the Cotton Bowl,” Clifford said. “We’re still that team. We still got great players.”
With one exception: The offensive strategy, out of necessity, has been simplified to create a new identity.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.