STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –– Penn State had failed to score on just two of its 31 red-zone opportunities before Saturday’s game against Minnesota.
As the game ended and the Nittany Lions were handed their first loss of the season, that number had doubled to four. In a road game against a talented and undefeated Golden Gophers team, Penn State couldn’t afford to leave points on the board. The offense did, twice, and it resulted in a five-point loss and a five-spot drop in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“The turnovers and our red-zone production was the difference and those two things,” coach James Franklin said Tuesday. “I think everybody in the room would admit we’ve been pretty good at those things all year long.
“We’ve been one of the better red-zone teams in the country,” Franklin added. “We did not do that on Saturday. We did not have a sense of urgency with our operation like we normally do, and on the road, that’s always more challenging.”
The lack of urgency was evident, and Franklin pointed out two specific plays from the game that stood out.
“We had one play where we snapped it right with the clock running out, where they probably could have penalized us,” Franklin said. “We had another one where I had to burn a timeout. Everything takes a few seconds longer, so I think that throws you off a little bit, but we did not do a good job of that all day long.”
Sean Clifford’s red-zone stats highlight the Nittany Lions’ inefficiency inside the Minnesota 20-yard line.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback was just 2-for-8 in the red zone. His lone touchdown came from 10 yards, but that’s about where the positives end. Sure, Justin Shorter dropped a would-be touchdown in the third quarter, but Penn State wasn’t able to get its best offensive players involved when it mattered most.
Clifford targeted KJ Hamler three times in the red zone and failed to register one completion. The same goes for Pat Freiermuth, who was targeted just once in the red zone. But Minnesota does deserve a lot of credit for limiting the Nittany Lions’ top two targets when the field shortened.
“They obviously had a plan to make sure that they were going to play some bracket coverage on KJ and Pat, which is smart,” Franklin said. “I thought [Minnesota] played hard. Even when we attacked them on the outside, one-on-ones, their corners made plays. But we had some opportunities that we did not capitalize on.”
Part of the reason Penn State had so much success in the red zone earlier this season was the variety of options and weapons offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne had at his disposal. But those options seemed to dwindle against Minnesota.
Of course, Freiermuth and Hamler combined for 14 catches and more than 200 receiving yards. But it’s still back to the drawing board this week for the Nittany Lions as they try to get back to their lethal ways in the red zone.