While having a bye week after the third game of a football season doesn’t seem ideal for a team trying to establish a rhythm, it suits Penn State just fine.
Though undefeated and ranked 13th, the Nittany Lions have experienced an uneven three weeks. They rolled up big numbers in their opener against overmatched Idaho, making their overall statistics look impressive. But that performance perhaps left the players a bit overconfident.
Head coach James Franklin and his staff must deal with a list of issues before the Lions take their first road trip of the season, their Big Ten opener on Sept. 27 at Maryland, starting a nine-game schedule that includes three of their four toughest games – Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State – on the road.
Perhaps Penn State’s biggest need is to find its offense an identity.
The Nittany Lions have gone from 79 points to 45 to 17 in three weeks, a sharp decline that has coincided with the rising caliber of the opponent. They have been unable to sustain drives consistently. They’ve relied on the deep ball, getting two touchdowns in the Buffalo game with long passes but going 0-for-5 against Pitt.
They had three big plays against the Panthers: an 85-yard run by Journey Brown; a 53-yard completion to KJ Hamler, on which the junior receiver caught a 12-yard pass and did the rest with his speed; and a 40-yard pass to Ricky Slade on another short pattern that the running back broke.
That added up to 178 yards. On the Lions’ other 59 plays, they gained 211 total yards, or 3.6 yards per play. Still, Franklin wants to keep the potential for explosive plays alive.
“A couple of them we overthrew,” he said after the Pitt game. “A couple of them we left inside, especially the vertical balls. We want to keep those outside, even if they’re short. We want our receivers to leave room on the sideline for the quarterback and be able to adjust to the ball, and we didn’t do that.”
There are other problems. The Lions’ third-down conversion rate of 23.3 percent is 125th out of 130 FBS teams. Their time of possession -- 25 minutes, 21 seconds -- is the worst in the Big Ten.
The offensive line has played in fits and spurts. The rushing game improved notably from Buffalo (78 yards) to Pittsburgh (167). But quarterback Sean Clifford has been sacked three times in each of the last two games and took a number of hits against the Panthers.
Slade is having the toughest time among the team’s four running backs finding room to operate, gaining just 21 yards in 12 carries. However, he has three catches out of the backfield for 68 yards.
Clifford finished Saturday’s game under 50 percent (14-of-30) for the first time this season and did not connect for a touchdown pass. But he ranks sixth in FBS in yards per completion at 17.75 and leads the Big Ten in total offense at 298 yards per game.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions haven’t impressed against the pass in their last two games, allowing a total of 617 yards. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett passed for 372 yards and found time against a weak pass rush that eventually sacked him three times.
In the fourth quarter alone, the Panthers converted third-and-11, third-and-15, second-and-19, and fourth-and-12 plays for first downs.
The defense did its part against the run, holding the Panthers to 24 yards on 25 carries. The unit is ninth nationally in rushing defense (70.7 yards) and tied for seventh in scoring defense (10 points).
The team’s specialists also have done well. Blake Gillikin has dropped nine of his 13 punts inside the 20-yard line. Justin Stout has boomed 24 of 25 kickoffs out of the end zone for touchbacks, while kicking two field goals of more than 50 yards, including last week’s school-record 57-yarder.
The fight for a Big Ten championship begins next week. Maryland, despite being upset last week by Temple, will be fired up for a prime-time game, having been outscored, 104-6, by Penn State in the last two seasons. Games next month at Iowa and the home whiteout against Michigan will be challenging.