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Penn State looking for offensive consistency, and eliminating those annoying lulls

The Nittany Lions put up points in bunches early against both Purdue and Michigan, then went into a long drought on offense. It almost cost them against the Wolverines.

Quarterback Sean Clifford and the Nittany Lions had their fair share of big plays Saturday against Michigan, but struggled to execute more consistently on the smaller, simpler plays.
Quarterback Sean Clifford and the Nittany Lions had their fair share of big plays Saturday against Michigan, but struggled to execute more consistently on the smaller, simpler plays.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

It’s almost as if the Penn State offense starts so quickly that the unit needs to take an extended rest.

Case in point one, Oct. 5: The Nittany Lions scored four touchdowns in just over 15 minutes against Purdue, then did little for the next 23½ minutes, with 136 total yards and five punts on their next seven possessions. Still, it was an easy 35-7 victory.

Case in point two, Oct. 19: The Lions rushed out to a 21-0 lead over Michigan in the opening 22½ minutes, with 195 total yards. In the next 22½ minutes, they managed just 30 yards in five possessions, with zero points, and hung on for a 28-21 win, thanks to a late goal-line stand.

Penn State is 7-0 and ranked sixth in the country, but the thought is the lack of consistency on offense will come back to bite the Lions, whether it’s Saturday at Michigan State or in two big games next month, at Minnesota and Ohio State.

Head coach James Franklin is aware of this, but he also wants to give credit to the Wolverines – “they’re on scholarship, too,” he says – when calls by his offense later in the game “were very similar to what they were in the first quarter” but resulted in incompletions instead of touchdowns.

“I think consistency is about everything,” Franklin said Tuesday, at his weekly media teleconference. “It’s about our run game. It’s about our protection. It’s about hitting the throws that we should hit consistently. It’s third down. It’s all of it. We missed some opportunities. It’s explosive plays.

“But we played a [Michigan] defense this past week, that’s who they are. If you look over the last I-don’t-know-how-many years, that’s who they are. It’s [trying to make] big plays against them. And if you’re able to hit your big plays, you’re going to have success.”

The Nittany Lions had their share of big plays against the Wolverines. Sean Clifford’s 37-yard completion to Jahan Dotson set up their first touchdown. Ricky Slade’s 44-yard run set up their second. The final two touchdowns came on Clifford’s passes of 25 and 53 yards to KJ Hamler.

But, there weren’t enough successful simpler plays, which Franklin referred to as “gimmes.” Between the two Clifford-to-Hamler TD throws, Penn State went 0-for-5 on third down, including Clifford overthrowing a wide-open Pat Freiermuth on third-and-7 in the third quarter. The Lions were 4-of-13 in overall third-down conversions.

“The long balls, we’ve got to try to hit as many of them as we possibly can, because we all understand how impactful they are in the game,” Franklin said. “But it’s third and [7], and the tight end is wide open. You’ve got to hit 100 percent of the gimmes.

“Where we have worked like heck to protect and get a guy open, we’ve got to hit them. I don’t want that to come off the wrong way; I couldn’t be more pleased with Sean, but we’ve got to hit a higher rate of those. It’s just like in the run game. We’ve got to consistently make the one free-hitter – the safety or whoever it may be – we have to make that guy miss.”

Clifford was critical of himself after the game for missing the pass to Freiermuth, but he noted Tuesday that the offensive lulls that surfaced against Purdue and Michigan – and Iowa, where the Lions scored their two touchdowns more than 33 minutes apart – need to be eliminated.

“We’re working really hard to identify why some of them are happening,” Clifford said. “I think that throughout these next games, we’ve just got to keep pushing, keep identifying what’s going on and talking through things on the sidelines to get us more prepared for those third-quarter and fourth-quarter type situations.”