Penn State Football

What have been the biggest surprises for Penn State so far? We debate

Penn State football coach James Franklin explains what went wrong in loss to Michigan State

Penn State football coach James Franklin explains what went wrong in the Nittany Lions' 21-17 loss to Michigan State on Oct. 13, 2018 at Beaver Stadium.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin explains what went wrong in the Nittany Lions' 21-17 loss to Michigan State on Oct. 13, 2018 at Beaver Stadium.

We’ve finally reached the midpoint of Penn State’s regular season.

So since we’re six games into the year, we decided to look back and take a closer look at the surprises on offense and defense. What didn’t we anticipate? What’s been the good — and what’s been the bad?

Here are our picks for the biggest surprises on offense and defense.

Offense

John McGonigal: The Michigan State game

After a bye week, the Nittany Lions — one of college football’s most explosive offenses in the last three years — faced the 122nd-ranked pass defense in the country. That should have been Penn State’s recipe for a rebound.

Instead, the Nittany Lions fell flat on their faces, losing 21-17 thanks in large part to a non-existent downfield passing game.

In Penn State’s previous 32 games — from Joe Moorhead’s 2016 install of his RPO offense to the team’s top-10 matchup with Ohio State — the Nittany Lions averaged 2.13 passing plays of 30 yards or more per game. Against Michigan State, Penn State didn’t have one.

In fact, the Nittany Lions managed only three passing plays of 20 yards or more and one was a five-yard catch-and-run by KJ Hamler. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne did not test the Spartans’ secondary downfield, which had allowed 305.2 passing yards per game entering last weekend’s contest.

The result? Penn State’s lowest home point total since its 28-16 loss to Michigan in 2015, back when John Donovan was still calling the plays.

In a game where the Nittany Lions were favored by two touchdowns, Penn State’s lackluster aerial attack was stunningly bad.

Josh Moyer: The drops and struggling receivers

Not all surprises in the receiving corps have been bad — hello, KJ Hamler — but the drops have definitely been the most shocking aspect of this offense.

Even before the Michigan State game, the Nittany Lions had already racked up a conference-worst 17 drops. Nobody in the Power 5 dropped more passes, according to Pro Football Focus.

This receiving corps was supposed to be a strength of the offense. Before the season, The Sporting News projected Juwan Johnson as the No. 7 overall draft pick in the 2020 NFL draft. DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk were both among the fastest players on the team. True freshmen Justin Shorter and Jahan Dotson were praised all offseason.

Instead, the receiving corps has dragged down this offense instead of lifting it up. Johnson is averaging less than 40 receiving yards per game and will have to return to school another season. True freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth has more catches than Polk and Thompkins. And neither Shorter nor Dotson have played yet this season, although injuries have played a role.

There were a number of concerns in the offseason, but receiver wasn’t one of them. Instead, it’s become of the main storyline of the offense. According to PFF, McSorley’s drop percentage before Michigan State was 12.4 percent — which was double that of any other top-25 quarterback.

If Penn State’s receivers caught every catchable ball, McSorley’s completion rate would increase from its current 54.4 percent rate to no worse than 64.9 percent.

Penn State is struggling more with drops than almost any other team in the nation. That’s something no one saw coming. Receivers coach David Corley has a lot to answer for after this season; nothing has been more surprising.

Defense

Josh Moyer: MLB Jan Johnson

In the spring, Franklin outlined the three biggest question marks facing his team — and he wasn’t shy about including middle linebacker.

There was no telling who might start there. The popular projection in the spring was that Jan Johnson would play in the middle — until Micah Parsons was ready for a starting spot, with Koa Farmer and Cam Brown outside.

But Johnson has played past all those expectations. Asked a week ago about the biggest surprise at his position, Brown didn’t hesitate to say Johnson. “He’s more athletic than some people give him credit for,” Brown said.

Make no mistake. Johnson isn’t the strongest, fastest or most physically gifted of the linebackers. But he might be the smartest. The former high school quarterback has been terrific against the run and, even if he’s usually not on the field on third down, the walk-on has been crucial to the success of this defense.

He’s leading the team with 34 tackles and also boasts an interception.

“Jan’s done a nice job for us; probably exceeded my expectations,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “I mean, I’ve been a Jan Johnson fan for a while, but he’s really playing well.”

John McGonigal: First half vs. Ohio State

The overwhelming narrative entering Penn State and Ohio State’s monumental meeting was that it’d be a shootout, partly because the Nittany Lion defense was spotty at best.

Penn State allowed 28 fourth-quarter points to Appalachian State, surrendered 214 first-half rushing yards to Pitt and let up 7.9 yards per carry in the opening two quarters to Illinois. Brent Pry’s unit was susceptible to lapses, whether it be because of missed tackles, blown assignments in the secondary or misalignments along the front four.

Now, that tackling issue reared its ugly head in the fourth quarter against the Buckeyes — but the Nittany Lion defense got after it in the first half.

Penn State forced five three-and-outs, as many as Ohio State had in its four previous games. Heisman-contending quarterback Dwayne Haskins looked human, completing just 5 of 14 passes with an interception through seven drives. And with pressure coming from Cam Brown, Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller, the Buckeyes were held to 2.7 yards per play.

Those who bet the over were severely disappointed watching Penn State’s defense go to work. Media and fans alike were shocked, too.

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