Penn State football got up early Saturday afternoon against the Michigan State Spartans and never looked back as they improved to 8-0 on the season and 5-0 in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions beat the Spartans in East Lansing, 28-7.
Let’s take a look at three takeaways from the game.
1. Sean Clifford took a step forward
Penn State’s offense got rolling early Saturday afternoon thanks to the play of redshirt sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford. Clifford completed 12-of-17 passes in the first half for 127 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 23 yards on four carries before the weather took a drastic turn. He was hitting receivers early and often in the game, using his legs to give himself time, and to run the ball.
He looked calm and cool, a stark contrast from the way he played in Penn State’s last away game, against Iowa. Clifford panicked in the pocket against the Hawkeyes, ran into his own linemen, and walked into sacks. That wasn’t the case this week. Clifford moved his feet well in the pocket and stayed composed when the Spartans got into the backfield. The redshirt sophomore was accurate in the game and hit open receivers and let them go to work.
Clifford had been an excellent game manager in the year. Against the Spartans, he was a playmaker more often than not. That’s an important step as the Nittany Lions inch closer to their showdown with Ohio State in Columbus.
2. Ricky Rahne made necessary adjustments
Michigan State runs a Cover 4 defense under its head coach, Mark Dantonio, and it has given Penn State fits in recent years. The defense is designed to take away deep passes and keep everything underneath. In the last two years, the Nittany Lions tried to beat the defense deep, playing into its hands and ultimately struggling to get anything going. They lost both of those games.
Former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was at the helm in the 2017 game, but in 2018, current Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne was calling the plays. Rahne clearly learned from the team’s mistakes in the past two years. The Penn State offense came out and attacked the Spartans underneath, getting its playmakers the ball and allowing them to go to work. Eventually, that opened the field for Penn State as Michigan State started to cheat underneath and got caught out of position. Those big plays didn’t hit often, but they were available because Rahne attacked the Spartans’ weakness and allowed himself to have a full playbook at his disposal because of it.
Rahne had already seen the scheme this season when the Nittany Lions faced Pittsburgh. The Panthers’ head coach, Pat Narduzzi, is a coaching disciple of Dantonio and runs a very similar defense. Rahne’s adjustment to attack the Spartans underneath is a positive sign for the offensive coordinator and his ability adjust, an area he struggled with last season.
3. Penn State’s defense missed several opportunities
The Penn State defense stayed hot in Saturday’s game, holding the Spartans to seven points in the game, and not allowing a score until the third quarter of the game. They forced three turnovers, with a fourth coming on a Michigan State muffed punt, but had several opportunities for more. Sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons and junior cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade were all hit with passes by Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke. All three could’ve easily been interceptions had the Nittany Lions reacted quicker.
Those are the kinds of plays they’ll need to make against better offenses. Coming into the game, they were tied at No. 64 in the country with a host of teams in turnovers gained with 10. For as good as the Penn State defense is, it needs to force more turnovers to have the full impact it’s capable of the rest of the season. If the unit can do that, it’ll go from one of the top defenses in the country, to potentially the top defense in the country.