Penn State Football

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Reviewing Penn State’s 45-13 comeback win over Buffalo

First touchdown was a sigh of relief for sophomore

Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson got his first two touchdowns during the win over Buffalo.
Up Next
Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson got his first two touchdowns during the win over Buffalo.

Penn State wideout Jahan Dotson breathed a sigh of relief after his first career touchdown Saturday night.

“I’ve been waiting all year,” the sophomore said after the Nittany Lions’ 45-13 win over Buffalo. “Last year I played a little bit and I couldn’t get in the end zone. This year, I got it in in the second game, so that was pretty cool.”

Dotson said he thought about his parents as soon as the refs signaled touchdown. And odds are that won’t be the last time the Nazareth, Pa., native makes his parents proud. In fact, he finished with two touchdown catches Saturday night — along with a team-leading 109 receiving yards on four receptions.

Dotson’s first TD came in the first quarter when QB Sean Clifford tossed a 28-yard pass to the 5-foot-11 target. It looked as if someone might’ve run the wrong route since KJ Hamler was also in the vicinity, but Dotson said the two both ran corners on the play concept — and Clifford simply threw it between the two. “Whoever got there first, to be honest, had it,” Dotson said. “I just happened to get there.”

His second touchdown catch came on a 56-yard strike in the fourth quarter, when Clifford’s pump-fake and Dotson’s double-move gave him about a three-yard cushion over the corner.

So far this season, Dotson has separated himself from receivers not named Hamler. He’s already garnered comparisons to longtime fan favorite and alum Jordan Norwood, who also stood 5-foot-11 and was known for his small frame, great hands and solid route-running.

Head coach James Franklin said Dotson has already come a long way.

“He has gotten bigger, he has gotten stronger and more explosive, which is going to allow him to make more big plays in terms of yards and in terms of running through defensive backs and getting your hands off,” Franklin said.

“Once he puts together a junior, senior and NFL body, he’s got a chance to have a very bright future at Penn State and after that.”

Good

CB John Reid takes control: Looking for a turning point to Saturday’s game? Look no further than Reid’s pick-six in the third quarter, when he stepped right in front of a pass — a throw Buffalo’s safety labeled a “minor mistake” — and returned the interception 36 yards for the touchdown.

That was obviously huge, as it gave Penn State the 14-10 lead and sparked a turnaround. But Reid played well all night: He also finished with two pass breakups and one QB hurry.

After starting off slow last season, coming off a serious injury, Reid has started fast in 2019. He wasn’t on many NFL draft boards in the preseason; that’ll likely change soon enough.

TE Pat Freiermuth could pick up some hardware this season: The 6-foot-5 tight end — who spent part of the summer training with a DB from the New England Patriots — was dinged up last week, and his status was uncertain for Saturday.

But he clearly looked every bit of 100 percent. Half of Sean Clifford’s pass completions went to Freiermuth — eight of 16 — and he made plays when needed. On fourth-and-2 late in the third quarter, Freiermuth made a one-handed catch and then rumbled 28 yards upfield for the score.

He’s one of the best tight ends in the conference, and it would surprise no one if he came away with the Kwalick-Clark Tight End of the Year award.

Penn State didn’t stay down: Remember 2016? Penn State often sleepwalked through the first half before waking up in the second and destroying opponents en route to a Big Ten title.

First-half struggles aren’t good. But finishing strong like PSU did Saturday? That was great. This team was unstoppable in the third quarter and showed resiliency after a deflating first half. Maybe it was Vince Lombardi — or Rocky — who said, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how you get back up.”

Cliche? Sure. But the Nittany Lions didn’t stay down Saturday. And that should count for something.

“The adversity benefits you tremendously,” said linebacker Cam Brown, who forced and recovered a fumble, “because it gets you ready for later games.”

QB Sean Clifford can ‘run run’: OK, we’ll admit, we furrowed our brow a bit when James Franklin first said Clifford’s 40-yard dash was faster than Trace McSorley’s. We had our doubts. But after Clifford’s 58-yard scamper Saturday, Clifford’s 4.5-speed should get a big blue check mark for being verified.

Granted, the quarterback was chased down from behind — Noah Cain scored a play later, from 2 yards out — but that still might’ve been the most surprising offensive play of the game.

Clifford led the team in rushing which, OK, wasn’t necessarily a “good” thing for PSU. But it definitely means Clifford has more potential to be a dual threat than most thought. His 58-yard run was longer than McSorley’s career-best of 51. That’s a positive moving forward.

K Jordan Stout remains a weapon: Eight kickoffs Saturday. Eight touchbacks. Need we say more?

OK, how about this: Stout leads the nation with 20 touchbacks this season — and that’s better than twice as many touchbacks as more than 100 FBS teams.

We just want to see Stout attempt a 60-yard field goal at some point. Make it happen, Joe Lorig.

Bad

Offensive line’s sub-par play: Sure, Penn State’s defensive line didn’t dominate either — but the offensive line was atrocious.

The Nittany Lions ran just 46 plays, and the OL allowed seven tackles for loss. Against Buffalo. Against a team that lost four of its top-six tacklers from last season and essentially returned two defensive starters. That is not a harbinger of good things to come for PSU.

Sean Clifford was sacked three times, and the running game was nonexistent. Take away Clifford’s 58-yard scramble, and this offense generated less than 1 yard per carry. Against Buffalo!

“I don’t think we were finishing blocks,” James Franklin said. And, judging from the stats, it didn’t look like Penn State was starting blocks on some plays, either. This OL has a long way to go this season.

Again.

Third-down struggles: There are some definite unwanted trends in Happy Valley. Sub-par offensive line play is one of those; third-down struggles is another.

After going 1-for-9 on third downs against Idaho, Penn State responded ... by going 2-of-9 against Buffalo. (The Bulls were 10-of-23.) Let’s put that into perspective: After two weeks, the Nittany Lions are currently ranked No. 128 out of 130 teams in their third-down conversion rate.

Rutgers is converting 32.1 percent of its third downs. Penn State? Try 17.6 percent. Only Georgia Southern (16 percent) and New Mexico (6.7 percent) are worse. Also, one of Penn State’s third-down conversions Saturday came on a 1-yard run by Ricky Slade.

The issues here are numerous. Some of the play-calls or routes were odd — Clifford twice completed passes short of the sticks — and the offensive line wasn’t generating enough push on earlier downs, making third-and-long an all-too-familiar situation.

Running-back-by-committee: Sure, the offensive line deserves a lot of the blame for the running game’s struggles — but there’s still no other reasonable place to put the committee approach than under “Bad.”

PSU’s stable of four running backs combined for 11 carries and 39 yards Saturday against a not-very-good defense. Ricky Slade fumbled the ball, and the freshman duo of Noah Cain/Devyn Ford had just two combined carries.

Journey Brown fared just fine, averaging 4.7 yards per carry on six touches. But, overall, this RB group fell far, far short of expectations Saturday. FCS Robert Morris had two backs (Alijah Jackson, 85 yards; Jordan Johnson, 45 yards) who outran every one of PSU’s backs against Buffalo.

If that’s not bad news, we don’t know what is. Maybe Penn State’s backs need to get into a rhythm; maybe Slade needs some time on the bench. Whatever the case, Saturday’s performance was unacceptable.

Ugly

Slow start: Buffalo led 10-7 at halftime. U-g-l-y. Wideout Jahan Dotson might’ve summed the slow start up best.

“We just got to come out firing on all cylinders because, when we play good teams, it’s going to come back to bite us,” he said.

Yup. Penn State was able to rally in the second half, but the first half was sloppy and disconcerting. During one memorable three-and-out, Penn State’s offensive line committed three penalties. The play-calling wasn’t exactly inspired, either.

Drive 1: Completion for a loss, completion for a loss, completion short of a first down. Punt.

Drive 3 (after converting the first third down of the game): Run for 1 yard, run for 2 yards, run for minus-1 yard. Punt.

You get the idea. The defense wasn’t immune either as, we go into detail below, allowing a 96-yard TD drive right before halftime did not help matters.

T.O.P./Defense not getting off field: If you want to know how Buffalo stayed in the game for so long, just take a look at the time of possession: Buffalo had the ball for 42:32 to Penn State’s 17:28. That’s striking.

Last season, the defense let up at key times in the game — and Saturday was no exception. In the closing minutes of the first half, Penn State allowed a 10-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that gave the Bulls the edge at halftime.

The Bulls converted a third-and-5 and a third-and-8 on the drive — by throwing for 29 and 40 yards, respectively. Throughout the game, the Nittany Lions couldn’t make key stops so they were forced to stay on the field.

Saturday wasn’t a good look. The defense allowed only 13 points but, against better teams, it’ll have to come up in more clutch situations — or it’ll be a long day.

Buffalo punter’s injury: In the third quarter, Evan Finegan attempted to punt with a speedy Journey Brown bearing down upon him — and Finegan’s leg collided with Brown, resulting in a compound-bone fracture. We’ll spare you the more gruesome details, but the TV broadcast declined to show the replay.

Finegan is reportedly undergoing surgery Sunday to repair a broken fibula and tibia. And he sent out a tweet Sunday asking for prayers.

You hate to see any kind of injury in athletics, but this one was especially serious. The CDT wishes Finegan a speedy recovery — and we’re sure James Franklin and Nittany Nation agree.

“Anything that we can do to help support them while they are in town, we want to make sure that we do that,” Franklin said at the start of Saturday night’s press conference. “But our thoughts are with him.”

  Comments