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Like and don’t like: PSU’s offense just isn’t very good, and the problems run deep

Sean Clifford
Photo by Penn State Athletics: QB Sean Clifford looks to run in Saturday's game against Maryland.

There’s always a lot to like and not like during a football game. This is my comprehensive list of things I liked and did not like, starting with the most important plays of the game, then going through the contest from the beginning.

There’s a whole lot of don’t likes in this one.

Don’t like: Penn State’s offense just is not very good. We’re going to have to come to grips with that, playing without the top two tailbacks, Journey Brown and Noah Cain. The issues run deep in a lot of places.

Don’t like: Sean Clifford’s accuracy problem is a big deal. He misfired on several key throws in the first half — pretty much all of them overthrows — and the game might have been a lot different if he hits those passes. Clifford talks a big game. He’s a team leader. He’s experienced. But his play on the field just has not gotten it done this season. If you go back to the second half of last year, Clifford has regressed noticeably in some areas. A big part of it was because he was banged up last season, but this year his decision making and poor throws have been devastating for the team. He tries to do too much — maybe because he has to — but too often he’s wound up hurting the team with bad plays.

Don’t like: Clifford threw 57 passes, a PSU single-game record. He completed only 27 (47.4 percent).

Don’t like: Why in the world did James Franklin not at least give Will Levis a chance to play QB in the second half, after things got out of hand? Coaches often refuse to open up any potential can of worms with a QB controversy, but Clifford was really struggling in a lot of areas and making some highly questionable decisions.

Don’t like: PSU’s offensive line has been an enormous disappointment, when it was expected to be a strength of the team. After getting manhandled last week by Ohio State, the Lions were blown off the ball most of the night by Maryland, which pressured QB Sean Clifford time and time again.

Don’t like: Penn State’s defense was terrible in the first half. Just unacceptable. The Lions allowed 28 points and 335 yards, and they were inept on third down, allowing the Terps to convert 8-of-10.

Don’t like: It was yet another slow start for Penn State, and this is more than just a trend, it’s basically become the program’s identity. The Nittany Lions just don’t look ready to play when games start, and that’s a big, big problem. I wrote earlier in the week that slow starts have been the most consistently troubling trend of the James Franklin era, and I’ll double and triple down on that belief. Offensively, the Lions have scored a total of 20 first-half points in three games. That’s flat out awful. It’s one thing if you’ve got a struggling offense and a great defense, but the defensive was abysmal in the first half, too. The game was not exactly over at halftime, down 28-7, but the Lions had played themselves into another huge hole that they had little chance to overcome.

Don’t like: Safety Lamont Wade was injured in the first half and had to go to the locker room. He did return to action in the second half with a club on his left hand.

Like: I actually liked Franklin’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 at the 7 on PSU’s first series of the game. The Lions were down 7-0 already, and it was a good gamble, in my opinion. Now, they didn’t score, so the decision backfired in a big way and may have deflated the entire team after a nice drive.

Don’t like: The play call on the fourth-and-3 was lousy. A deep fade is a low-percentage throw, and it didn’t work.

Like: Jahan Dotson is good. Really good. He clearly is the team’s No. 1 receiver and has made huge improvements since last year.

Don’t like: Maryland crushed Penn State on third down for much of the day. The Terps converted 8-of-10 third downs in the first half to build their 28-7 lead. They also gained almost 20 yards per play on those third downs in the first half, with Tagovailoa finding wide open receivers and delivering the ball on the money.

Don’t like: Maryland came in with an awful run defense, allowing 587 yards on the ground through two games. Penn State struggled on the ground, again, and continues to be searching for answers without Journey Brown and Noah Cain.

Don’t like: Clifford totally missed Isaac Lutz running wide open down the left sideline late in the third quarter on third down, before throwing the ball away. Then Clifford was sacked on fourth down. It seemed clear at this point that he needed to be pulled, but Franklin kept him in the game.

LOVE: They played Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” during a third-quarter timeout at Beaver Stadium. On an historic day in America, it was so, so good to hear that inspiring patriotic song.


Like: Parker Washington made a nice TD grab early in the fourth, a 23-yard strike from Sean Clifford. Washington has received a lot of praise, and rightfully so, since the freshman looks like he could be a good one.

Like: PSU’s defense played better in the second half, actually getting some pressure on Taulia Tagovailoa and making things difficult for the Terps. Maryland didn’t score an offensive touchdown in the second half, with its only points coming on a defensive score. Still, by that time, the damage had been done, giving up 28 points in the first half.

Like: Jahan Dotson made another good catch on PSU’s final series, going up and snaring a 50-50 ball to get into scoring position.

Like: Parker Washington made a nice catch for a 1-yard TD on fourth-and-goal in the closing seconds.


Hate: Sean Clifford fumbled on the first series of the second half, with linebacker Chance Campbell scooping it up and scoring from 29 yards. Devyn Ford was supposed to block the pass rush from the left side, but the Terps ran right through him on their way to Clifford. Penn State desperately needed something to happen on that drive to get back in the game. Well, something happened, all right, and it was terrible.

Hate: The Lions got to the Maryland 33 on their next series, then drew back-to-back false start penalties. That’s a sign of a team just not focused and ready to play.

Don’t like: Clifford was sacked on back-to-back plays to kill the drive, including taking a 16-yard sack on third-and-15 at the 16. Clifford was trying to do everything he could on a day where he just wasn’t getting much help. But the decision making on that sack was highly questionable. It moved the Lions way back, and Jake Pinegar missed a 49-yard field goal wide left.


Don’t like: Penn State’s defense got humiliated yet again as the Terps moved right down the field and got a 38-yard TD run by Jake Funk to make it 21-0. This was all stunning at the time, given that Maryland hadn’t scored against PSU since 2016 and had been outscored 163-6 over the past three meetings. But clearly, this is not the same Maryland team.

Like: Penn State answered with a nice drive, showing some life, and it all started with a big 16-yard pass from Clifford to Jahan Dotson to convert a third-and-14 from the 21. PSU converted another big third-and-8 from the Terps’ 36 when Clifford hit Pat Freiermuth over the middle for 16 yards.

Like: On the next play, Clifford delivered a beautiful pass to the right side that Jahan Dotson went up and grabbed over his defender for PSU’s first touchdown. That throw by Clifford showed the QB wasn’t lacking for confidence despite his slow start and was still capable of making plays.

Like: PSU faced third-and-10 from its own 11 late in the half, and giving the ball back to Maryland could have meant going down 28-7. But Clifford spun out of traffic in the pocket and scrambled for 15 yards to pick up a key first down and some field position.

Don’t like: Right after that run, however, Clifford misfired on three straight passes, and PSU had to punt from its 26. Still, that’s better than punting from the 11, but the Lions weren’t able to eat up more more clock on three incompletions.

Don’t like: Joey Porter Jr. got beaten badly on a 34-yard TD throw late in the first half that gave the Terps a 28-7 lead. Porter has tremendous ability, but on that third-and-6 play, he made the big mistake of letting the receiver get behind him, and it proved to be costly.

Like: Give Maryland credit on that gorgeous play call for the TD. Tagovailoa rolled out to his right and threw a beautiful pass to a wide-open Dontay Demus Jr. for the score.


Don’t like: On the first series, Maryland burned PSU for 19 yards on third-and-3 from its own 32, with Tagovailoa hitting Dontay Demus Jr. for a first down.

Don’t like: Three plays later, Tagovailoa hit Rakim Jarrett on a simple crossing pattern, and he outran the trailing defenders on the way to a 42-yard TD.

Like: Sean Clifford found Parker Washington on a nice 13-yard pass to convert a key third-and-6 on the Lions’ opening drive.

Like: Clifford scrambled for 13 yards on third-and-8 at the Maryland 41, getting a first down and keeping alive a scoring drive. The QB generally has been good this season at knowing when to take off and run, and in this spot, the middle of the field was wide open.

Don’t like: Clifford tucked it a little too early and ran on third-and-6 at the 10, getting 3 yards.

Like: The decision to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Terps’ 7 on the opening drive was a good, aggressive call. Nothing wrong with that at that point in the game.

Don’t like: However, I don’t like the play call at all on fourth down. The Lions went for a low-percentage throw on a deep fade to the back left of the end zone, and Clifford barely overthrow Parker Washington, who had a half step but was still dealing with several defenders. You need to make a safer, more reliable call there.

Like: The Lions’ defense gave up one first down, then shut the Terps down and forced a punt at the 21. That’s one reason I like the call on fourth down on PSU’s previous series. Maryland took over at its own 7, so there was a good chance the Lions would get the ball right back in decent field position if their defense got a quick stop.

Don’t like: PSU’s second series was a disaster, as the Lions went three-and-out with two bad plays. Clifford had Pat Freiermuth wide open after a nice play-action fake, but the QB overthrew the tight end badly. Clifford then was sacked for a 13-yard loss on third down. At this point, Clifford was just 2-of-7 for 23 yards, while his counterpart Tagovailoa was 5-of-6 for 73 yards and a TD.

Don’t like: PSU’s defense got embarrassed on the same crossing pattern for another TD that put the Terps up, 14-0. Maryland faced third-and-6 at the 38 when Tagovailoa stepped up and hit Jarrett on the crossing pattern, and he was off to the races past the defense for a 62-yard score.

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