Struggles on special teams was a season theme for Penn State
Well, that was something.
Penn State’s 27-24 loss to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl was at times boring, riveting, confusing, really confusing and expected. The Nittany Lions’ first three quarters were unwatchable. Trace McSorley — broken foot or not — rallied for 17 consecutive points in the fourth quarter. Special teams play was horrendous, while true freshmen starred again for the Nittany Lions.
With so much to break down, let’s get right to the observations and analysis from the season-ending affair at Camping World Stadium.
- Penn State’s tight ends had themselves a day. Pat Freiermuth hauled in a pair of catches for 39 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown in which he bulldozed two Kentucky defenders to the pylon. It was the true freshman’s eighth touchdown of the year, which easily led the team. Meanwhile, Nick Bowers capped the season with three catches for 32 yards and a score. As it stands, Penn State will have six tight ends on scholarship in 2019: Freiermuth, Bowers, Zack Kuntz, Jon Holland, Danny Dalton and incoming signee Brenton Strange. Bowers separated himself from Dalton and Holland down the stretch.
- Even with a knee brace and bum foot, Trace McSorley excelled on the ground. The hobbled star accounted for six first downs and 75 yards on the ground. It was the sixth time this season McSorley eclipsed 60 rushing yards in a game; he did that seven times in 2016 and 2017 combined.
- Micah Parsons was all over the place. The true freshman linebacker racked up a game-high 13 tackles, eight of which were solo stops. He also showed off his closing speed, stopping Kentucky scrambler Terry Wilson short of a first-down run and popping the ball free. Penn State fans have reason to be excited about Parsons next year.
- Cam Brown, Penn State’s starting WILL linebacker, was ejected in the third quarter because of targeting. It was a clear penalty; Brown led with his head when taking down Kentucky slot receiver Lynn Bowden. And losing the productive, 6-foot-5 ‘backer hamstrung Brent Pry. The defensive coordinator was forced to play Parsons and Farmer on the field at the same time as opposed to the usual plan of using one to spell the other. Not having Brown hurt. The vet will also be out for the first half of next season’s opener against Idaho.
- Kentucky running back Benny Snell, who averaged 5.5 yards a pop on 26 carries, was never stopped behind the line of scrimmage. Perhaps that would have been different if defensive tackle Robert Windsor was in the lineup. Windsor, a second-team AP All-Big Ten pick who dominated with four sacks in November, was suspended for a violation of team rules. So instead of having the 6-foot-4, 295-pounder in the middle of Penn State’s defense dealing with All-American guard Bunchy Stallings, he was on the sideline in shorts.
- KJ Hamler — “The Human Joystick” — caught a screen pass in the second quarter and sliced through the Kentucky defense for 41 yards, setting up Bowers’ short TD grab. It was a great call by Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, who dialed up bubble screens against Wisconsin, too, to open up the passing game. But Rahne never went back to it. In fact, the Nittany Lions didn’t go back to Hamler at all. The 41-yarder was his only catch, and he saw only one more target — a pass batted at the line of scrimmage late in the fourth quarter. Hamler is Penn State’s leading receiver and can house it any time he touches the ball. He should probably get more than two targets. That’s on McSorley and, more so, Rahne. “I’m not gonna say I’m not frustrated,” Hamler said when asked about the passing game in general. “We just gotta get our momentum going quicker. It’s on to the next year.”
- DeAndre Thompkins made his name on catches downfield early in his career, but he missed one in his final game at Penn State. When redshirt freshman Sean Clifford stepped in for a play while McSorley tended to a poked eye, he let it rip, airing out a perfect 50-yard toss. Thompkins wasn’t wide-open; he had a defender nearing in on him. But the ball went right through his outstretched arms, and the drive ended in a punt. If that pass was hauled in, the Nittany Lions would have been in field goal range.
- Somehow, Kentucky had a worse third-down conversion rate than the Nittany Lions. Eddie Gran’s offense moved the chains just three times on 14 third-down tries (21.4 percent); Penn State converted four of its 14 attempts (28.6 percent). Still, that’s atrocious by Rahne’s offense. A few factors go into it. McSorley wasn’t crisp early on, Miles Sanders managed only 3.9 yards per carry, and the average distance to gain on third down was eight yards flat. You’re not going to convert many third-and-long situations, especially against a defense that boasts the SEC’s sack leader.
- Speaking of sack leader Josh Allen, Penn State’s offensive line might have missed the whole “Block No. 41” memo. The eventual 2019 first-round pick had three sacks. Two of them came on third down, one of which he barreled toward McSorley untouched. “When we gave him time, he was able to make big plays,” Franklin said of McSorley. Problem is, that wasn’t often, at least not early on. McSorley completed only 9 of 22 passes in the first three quarters, and a lot of that has to do with a lack of protection.
- Phil Galiano had a bad first year as Penn State’s special teams coordinator. There’s no way around it. And the Citrus Bowl was by far his unit’s worst day. The Nittany Lions failed to convert an opening-drive fake punt; Franklin later defended the decision, but not the execution. Penn State also allowed a 58-yard punt return touchdown, missed a field goal and had a kick blocked. “It was not up to our standards today,” Franklin said of the special teams. “Wasn’t up to our standards all year long.” Galiano was already feeling the heat from fans coming into Tuesday afternoon. That performance only stoked the flames.