EAST LANSING, Mich. — It’s been the same old story for Penn State’s offense for much of the 2021 regular season.
Yes, the Nittany Lions sporadically hit on some explosive plays, thanks to likely All-America wide receiver Jahan Dotson and rapidly emerging wideout Parker Washington, but they don’t do it consistently. Instead of having one of the top-scoring offenses in the Big Ten as was predicted early in the season, they were middle of the pack, unable to finish off drives and pull out tight games.
That happened again Saturday when the Lions closed out their Big Ten schedule with a 30-27 loss to now-No. 11 Michigan State in a steady snowfall at Spartan Stadium. They failed to score more than three offensive touchdowns for the eighth time in nine conference contests.
It was a brutal way to finish an unsatisfactory second segment of the season. After a 5-0 start, the Lions went 2-5 in the last seven, with four of the losses coming by a total of 12 points. They finished 4-5 in the Big Ten, tying them for eighth overall with Illinois, which defeated them.
Penn State now waits a week before hearing next Sunday what its bowl assignment will be. The choices probably will be among the Music City Bowl Dec. 30 in Nashville, the Pinstripe Bowl Dec. 29 at Yankee Stadium in New York, and the Guaranteed Rate Bowl Dec. 28 in Phoenix.
“It’s tough knowing that almost every loss we’ve had, we’ve come within one possession in the games,” said Dotson, who enters the bowl game with 91 catches, 1,182 yards, and 12 TDs this season. “It really points back to the little details. That’s where games are won or lost when it’s that close.
“Both teams are very good. It’s whoever capitalizes and makes sure that they don’t mess up on the little details. We didn’t play a perfect game, made some mistakes out there that we can’t make against a good team like Michigan State. So we’ve just got to correct those.”
Given the fanfare that greeted the Lions’ new offensive coordinator, Mike Yurcich, at the start of 2021 after James Franklin plucked him from Texas, the final product was mostly lackluster. Penn State closes the regular season averaging 22.8 points and 353.6 total yards per game, ranking ninth in each category in the conference.
In nine Big Ten games last season, Kirk Ciarrocca’s only year as offensive coordinator, the Lions averaged 29.8 points and 430.3 total yards while going 4-5.
The Lions still have not had a single running back rush for 100 yards in a game this year. Sophomore Keyvone Lee got the most snaps (76) of any back in the final seven games but was sometimes reluctant to plow straight ahead between the tackles, choosing instead to run along the line of scrimmage and find a hole.
The offensive line showed promise on some occasions but regressed on others, often losing the battle of physicality in the trenches. Sean Clifford was sacked four times Saturday, raising the team’s number to 32.
The reliance on the running game ended up hurting Penn State against a Spartans secondary that entered the game dead last in passing yards allowed with nearly 340 per game. After tying Saturday’s game at 14 after Clifford’s second touchdown of the day to Dotson early in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions didn’t score on offense again for a span of 41 minutes, 28 seconds, or until Clifford’s TD strike to Washington in the game’s final minute.
The drought came with some head-scratching play calls from Yurcich and Franklin, who was on the sideline for his 100th game as Penn State’s head coach.
After Lee failed to gain 2 yards on fourth down from the Michigan State 16, the Lions got the ball back at their 40 and Lee gained 9 yards on first down. Rather than take a shot downfield, Clifford handed the ball off on second down to Lee for no gain and on third down, Lee fumbled and the Spartans recovered, setting up the clinching touchdown on a fourth-and-15 play with just over five minutes left.
“It’s a coach’s decision,” Clifford said when asked if he’d like to pass more. “I thought we were doing pretty well in the pass game, but we also hit some big ones in the run game. Play-calling is not my expertise.”
The defense, which has been solid for much of the season, has to take its share of the loss. The unit did not record a single sack of Michigan State quarterback Payton Thorne, and gave up seven conversions on third down when the Spartans needed 6 yards or more.
Franklin said he and his staff will spend the next week recruiting, meeting with players, and starting preparations for the bowl game. And perhaps he will examine how an offense that held promise at the start of the season remained so inconsistent.