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Penn State uses explosive passing plays to defeat Villanova, 38-17, but concerns remain

Sean Clifford passed for 401 yards and four touchdowns and his receivers had plenty of yards after the catch, but the Nittany Lions' rushed for only 80 yards against a strong Wildcats defense.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) throws a first-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) while being pressured by Villanova linebacker Amin Black (29)/
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) throws a first-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Jahan Dotson (5) while being pressured by Villanova linebacker Amin Black (29)/Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — After a three-week stretch that saw them win at Wisconsin and grab a victory in a stressful White Out game against Auburn, the sixth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions came out for a game with considerably less buzz Saturday and showed some ragged play in a 38-17 victory over Villanova before a crowd of 105,790 at Beaver Stadium.

Well, they can’t all be masterpieces

Yes, Penn State (4-0) moved the ball very well through the air. Sean Clifford passed for 401 yards, the second-highest total in program history, and four touchdowns, but the real stars were his receivers, who sped past Villanova defenders to add plenty of yards after the catch. Clifford recorded completions of 83, 67, 52, and 52 yards, but the only deep throw in that bunch was a perfect 52-yard touchdown strike on a post pattern to Jahan Dotson on the Nittany Lions’ first play from scrimmage. KeAndre Lambert-Smith went for an 83-yard touchdown, 60 of it after catching Clifford’s pass, and Parker Washington added gains of 67 (setting up a field goal) and 52 (touchdown). Clifford, who left the game after Tyler Warren’s 4-yard TD run just over a minute in to the fourth quarter, completed 19 of 26 passes.

But the Penn State rushing game struggled for much of the game. The Lions, who entered the game ranked 101st in FBS in running the football with an average of 128 yards, looked even worse in the first half with 18 rushing yards in 17 carries. They finished the game with 80 yards on the ground with a long gain of 13 and averaged 2.4 yards per carry factoring in three sacks of Clifford. That part of their offense is a definite concern for James Franklin now that the Nittany Lions play nothing but Big Ten games for the remainder of the regular season.

Penalties continue to kill

The Lions were flagged for only two penalties in the first half, but both were significant. An apparent first-quarter interception by safety Ji’Ayir Brown deep in Penn State territory was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty against tackle D’Von Ellies, and the Wildcats (3-1) were able to end their drive with a field goal. The Nittany Lions appeared to have converted a fourth-down pass in Villanova territory when Clifford’s pass to tight end Brenton Strange moved the ball to the 19, but Lions tackle Rasheed Walker was called for holding. Instead of a red-zone score, they had to punt. It was sure to be a point of emphasis for Franklin during Sunday’s team meeting.

A shoutout to Villanova

It was a rough first half for the Wildcats, who had 52 total yards and three points at halftime, and it carried over into the second-half kickoff when graduate student Tyler Will lay motionless on the ground after making the tackle. But a ‘Nova spokesman said Will, who was treated at a nearby hospital for a concussion, had full movement in his arms and legs. The good news continued as the Wildcats kept fighting, accounting for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter on passes of 57 and 17 yards from Daniel Smith to Rayjoun Pringle against mostly backups on the Penn State defense. Another highlight, a 55-yard fumble return for a touchdown by defensive back Denzel Williams with 20 seconds left, was overturned on review when running back Tank Smith was ruled down. Smith finished 20-of-34 with one interception for 222 yards, and Pringle caught four passes for 107.

Where’s the pass rush?

After accounting for only three sacks in its first three games, Penn State had trouble penetrating into the backfield to put a lot of heat on Smith early. Smith was sacked in the second quarter when 325-pound tackle PJ Mustipher overpowered his blocker to record the sack, and the Lions picked up two more sacks in the second half. The Penn State defense held the Wildcats to 280 total yards, 58 on the ground. Each team had an interception.