The 2020 season was one the most memorable ones in Penn State history, for all the wrong reasons. The Nittany Lions started 0-5 for the first time ever, and after being ranked in the preseason top 10, a strong case can be made that the 2020 PSU team was the most disappointing in college football history for the first half of the season.
The Nittany Lions turned things around at the end to win four straight games. But let’s face it, that came against weaker and/or struggling competition.
There’s no doubt the Lions will do better in 2021, simply because they can’t do much worse than starting 0-5.
To make the biggest strides and get back in the hunt for a Big Ten East title and College Football Playoff berth, these are five of the biggest areas where the team must improve.
1: Start games faster
For whatever reason, James Franklin’s tenure at Penn State has been beset by lackluster starts to games. I wrote about it extensively here after PSU lost to Ohio State to drop to 0-2, and things hit rock bottom the next week when Maryland destroyed the Lions in the first half, 28-7, in a stunning 35-19 win.
Franklin had this problem early in his tenure, when the talent level at PSU just wasn’t as good, and even the loaded 2016 Big Ten championship team often found itself behind at halftime because of slow starts.
Not everything can always be blamed on the head coach or coaching staff. The players have to do their jobs.
But this slow start issue falls squarely on Franklin, because it has been a recurring problem year after year regardless of the personnel.
Whatever Franklin and the coaches are doing before the game to get the guys ready to play, whatever they’re doing early in games to feel out opponents, whatever the heck has been going on, IT NEEDS TO CHANGE!
Penn State has a good roster, but it’s not so good that the Lions will always be able to rely on coming back after slow starts.
I don’t know what the answer is. Franklin gets paid $6 million a year to come up with an answer, and so far, he hasn’t.
2: Stop allowing so many big plays
Franklin loves talking about winning the explosive plays battle. Penn State had big issues with that in 2020, because the defense kept getting burned for one big play after another.
The Maryland debacle epitomized the problem. The Terps scored on a 42-yard TD pass, then a 62-yard TD pass on a nearly identical play, both in the first quarter. In the second quarter, Maryland faced 2nd-and-20 when Jake Funk broke loose for a 38-yard TD.
That simply cannot happen.
A big part of the big-play issue during the season was because of poor tackling. When doing this breakdown of five things, I initially was going to have “tackle better” as one of the components. But I figured I could get away with including it in this big play category, since they often went hand in hand.
By bringing in new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, the Lions absolutely should expect to win the explosive plays battle, because he’s going to insist on taking more shots down the field than Kirk Ciarrocca did.
Still, the defense has to do a much better job on its own of preventing explosive plays, something that the unit simply could not do this past season.
3: Turnover margin
Penn State forced only 10 turnovers in nine games (6 fumbles, 4 INTs). The offense turned it over 17 times (9 INTs, 8 fumbles).
That’s a -7 turnover margin, which is flat out awful. PSU ranked 112th in the nation in that category.
I was going to just make this category “create turnovers,” putting more emphasis on the defense. And clearly, that side of the ball must do a much, much better job of getting takeaways, something Franklin and defensive coordinator Brent Pry discussed during the season.
Turnovers don’t just happen because the other team’s QB makes a bad throw or a running back or receiver fumbles the ball. Yes, there is some luck when it comes to that. But there’s also a lot the defense can do to put the opposition in tough spots and force the ball out, and that’s something the PSU defense really struggled with in 2020.
As for the offense, it’s simple: Sean Clifford cannot average one interception per game. That just simply won’t cut it. And the Lions can’t lose nearly one fumble per game (8 in 9 contests).
Those numbers, and the overall turnover margin, must improve drastically next season.
4: Score touchdowns in red zone
Stop throwing stupid fade passes!!!!!
OK, that was an angry sentence. But man, it was painful to watch the Lions keep misfiring on fade passes from around the 10-yard line time after time. Ciarrocca failed badly by not recognizing that those plays just weren’t working because he just kept going back to them.
Penn State made 37 trips to the red zone and scored a touchdown only 18 times. That’s bad.
It also kicked nine field goals in those trips.
So, this is terrible: PSU failed to score at all on nine of its 37 red zone trips. That .757 percentage ranked 107th in the country.
There are a number of reasons Ciarrocca is no longer the offensive coordinator, first and foremost the fact that Yurcich was available and a no-brainer hire. But if we’re looking for specific areas where Ciarrocca just did not get the job done, the red zone is it.
5: Develop offensive line quicker
It’s a broken record, year after year: Penn State’s offensive line gets off to a slow start and is one of the biggest problems on the team.
At some point, you’d think that would change, but the O-line is always a big question mark.
The line struggled early last season against good competition, getting manhandled for the most part by the likes of Ohio State and Iowa. Teams didn’t respect PSU’s running game after all the injury issues, so they could load up on the pass rush, forcing Clifford to have to scramble a ton.
The O-line played much better in the final four games when the competition got easier.
The early season schedule next year is brutal, with games against Wisconsin, Auburn, Indiana and Iowa in the first six weeks. All of that is before PSU even gets to Ohio State in week eight.
If the line doesn’t play well early in the season, that late-season game against the Buckeyes really won’t mean very much.