MINNEAPOLIS – Three observations from fifth-ranked Penn State’s 31-26 loss to No. 13 Minnesota on Saturday.
The dream ended quickly
Excitement rushed through Nittany Nation this past week when the College Football Playoff selection committee listed Penn State as the nation’s No. 4 team in its first rankings. Head coach James Franklin tried to make sure that his team would remain focused on the Golden Gophers, but the Nittany Lions didn’t play sharp or smart football for much of the game. The home team forced a turnover on Penn State’s first possession and scored and kept its foot on the gas the entire game. The Gophers rolled up 466 yards of total offense and made enough clutch plays to keep the Lions off the board, including two major stops in the fourth quarter. The first came when the Lions turned the ball over on downs with 10 minutes, 38 seconds to play, and the second on an end-zone interception with 1:01 remaining. The malaise even extended to Franklin, who went for a two-point conversion after a third-quarter touchdown in the third quarter. With the loss, the Lions’ chances of making the playoff have been severely damaged, and only a win in two weeks over Ohio State will put them back in the chase.
Nittany Lions’ pass defense was a mess
The Penn State secondary was shredded the entire day. It played a zone that was marred by poor communication, leaving wide receivers wide open. Quarterback Tanner Morgan had one of his best days of his career, going 18-for-20 for 339 yards, but only a small percentage of his completions were contested catches, including a one-handed catch by Tyler Johnson for a touchdown despite great coverage by Keaton Ellis. Rashod Bateman caught seven passes for 203 yards, the most by a Penn State opponent all season. To be fair, the Lions secondary got no help from the pass rush, which didn’t get its first and only sack until late in the game. It was an atypical performance for a defense that had been one of the nation’s best in the season’s first two months.
Clifford fought, but he didn’t get much help
Sean Clifford had one of his poorer games of the season, throwing three interceptions, or as many as he had in the first eight games. However, he found early in the game that he basically could throw to just two receivers – wideout K.J. Hamler and tight end Pat Freiermuth. On the first series of the game, Justin Shorter dropped the first pass thrown his way, and failed to react shortly afterward to an underthrown ball that resulted in an interception by Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. Shorter also dropped a pass in the end zone in the third quarter. Hamler had seven catches for 119 yards and Freiermuth had seven for 101. But on two red-zone drives – one in the second quarter, one in the fourth – Clifford was unable to find the 6-foot-5 Freiermuth because of great coverage by the Golden Gophers secondary, and he was unable to locate the next option. Then on the final drive, he hit Journey Brown to the Minnesota 2, but Daniel George was flagged for offensive pass interference, and the march ended on an interception by Jordan Howden.