The Penn State offense can be a thing of beauty sometimes.
Quarterback Sean Clifford has the arm strength to zip the football on short and medium patterns to tight end Pat Freiermuth and to feather the ball deep to speedy receivers K.J. Hamler and Jahan Dotson. The Nittany Lions’ four running backs took turns bashing the Idaho defense in the lopsided season opener. The team is averaging 62 points, second in FBS.
However, in their 45-13 victory Saturday over Buffalo, the Lions showed periods of offensive inconsistency that won’t help them as the schedule grows tougher. It starts Saturday against Pittsburgh, followed by a nine-game Big Ten slate.
Penn State had six plays of 20 yards or longer against the Bulls. Its three third-quarter touchdown drives happened in one, three, and five plays, and the time needed to score took 5, 43, and 95 seconds.
But the Nittany Lions also had three three-and-outs, plus a drive in which Ricky Slade lost a fumble on the third play. They ran just eight plays in the second quarter. They finished the game with a time of possession of 17 minutes, 28 seconds, never reaching five minutes in any quarter.
“I thought that we were able to get some explosive plays” in the second half, head coach James Franklin said after the game. “I thought the inconsistency still stayed there; we just became more explosive in the second half. We had a lot of big plays, touchdowns. … We just have to be more consistent.”
The low level of third-down efficiency has been downright shocking, with the Lions converting 3 of 17 opportunities (17.6%). That’s against Idaho and Buffalo, not the beasts of the Big Ten, where four of Penn State’s future opponents rank in the top 20 nationally this week in defending third downs.
Franklin said Tuesday that the conversion percentage “jumps out to all of us” and that his team must improve in that area.
“The best offenses are getting most of their explosive plays on first and second down,” he said, “but for us to take the next step, we need to continue to be explosive on first and second down and be more efficient on third down, and then we’ll be really difficult to deal with.”
For Penn State’s four running backs — Slade, Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford — the yards were harder to come by last weekend because Buffalo loaded the box. The group combined for 11 carries and 39 yards on the ground, with Brown picking up 28 yards on six carries, including a 10-yard run that was the longest of the group.
Of course, the offensive line has something to do with the low production as well, but the backs need to show more. Slade, who was Miles Sanders’ backup all last season, has rushed for 17 yards on eight carries in two games and lost a fumble against Buffalo.
Franklin isn’t worried, however, and said all four would continue to share playing time.
“We have four guys that we think we can play with and win with,” he said. “Obviously in Week 1, you saw a lot of flashes of that. Week 2, we didn’t see as much.
“It’s not just the running backs. It’s the O-line. It’s the tight ends. It’s all of it. It’s all those things factoring in together. But no, I don’t think that picture is cleared up a whole lot more than it’s been in the first couple weeks. I think you’ll see all four of those guys play on Saturday, and we’re excited about all four of their futures.”
It will be a stern test against the Pitt defense. The Panthers allow 82 rushing yards per game, 23rd in FBS, and have yielded an average of 262 total yards (25th).