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Penn State quietly crept to a 6-0 start, surviving a close call with Pitt and navigating a late Iowa surge along the way. But, for various reasons, neither result attracted much attention; the Nittany Lions otherwise dominated their competition.
On Saturday, they secured a prime-time triumph and showed a national audience exactly how dangerous they can be.
During the annual White Out Game, Penn State raced out to a 21-0 lead over 16th-ranked Michigan and held off a second-half charge to earn a 28-21 victory.
It wasn’t perfect, but Penn State improved to 7-0 and confirmed its status as a real threat for the 2019 College Football Playoff.
The strength of this roster, without question, is the defense. That was evident in the opening half.
Led by potential first-round NFL draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos and star linebacker Micah Parsons, the Lions surrendered just 91 yards on Michigan’s first five drives. Those possessions ended with three punts, one turnover on downs and one interception.
Yes, the Wolverines started to move the ball after the break. Having such a dominant defensive performance in the first half afforded Penn State a rather substantial margin for error, though.
Entering the weekend, the unit ranked third nationally in scoring defense (8.2 PPG) and yards allowed per play (3.8). Penn State hadn’t ceded more than 13 points until Michigan managed 21, and no opponent has averaged better than 5.2 yards per snap.
On paper, the defense should always give the Lions a chance.
The pressure to produce then falls on sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford, who’s consistently risen to the challenge in 2019.
In addition to his superb velocity and excellent touch as a passer, Clifford has displayed terrific mobility with four games of 50-plus rushing yards this season. He picked up 17 and a touchdown Saturday, but the box score doesn’t tell the complete story; he also turned a few should-be sacks into small gains.
Every yard matters, especially against great defenses.
Penn State has the playmakers to make things difficult on such units anyway. Ricky Slade broke off a 44-yard scamper―one that could kickstart his slow season―while KJ Hamler tallied 108 yards and two touchdowns on six catches and Pat Freiermuth grabbed a 17-yard score.
Noah Cain and Jahan Dotson were relatively quiet opposite Michigan, but both have showed their explosiveness in 2019.
Hamler made the most timely contribution Saturday, breaking away for a 53-yard touchdown to give Penn State a 28-14 edge in the fourth quarter after Michigan had trimmed the lead to seven.
The most impressive part of that particular play was the timing. In the third quarter, Michigan mixed in more zone looks than usual and briefly stalled the Penn State attack. The Wolverines limited the Nittany Lions to just 16 yards in the third quarter.
Yet they stayed aggressive, and Clifford hit Hamler for what was ultimately the winning score.
Not being afraid to test the opponent downfield even when struggling is key to overcoming top teams. They’re going to have excellent defenses. Challenging them, not backing into comfortable but inefficient calls, is absolutely vital.
Sure, that could burn Penn State eventually. Looking into the immediate future, the Nittany Lions head to nemesis Michigan State before a trip to now-undefeated Minnesota following an idle weekend. Winning on the road in conference play is rarely a given―just ask Wisconsin.
Penn State isn’t a perfect team; that’s not what’s being suggested here.
One victory over Michigan doesn’t change the Lions’ place in the Big Ten hierarchy. Ohio State deserves the league’s top spot―and, barring a Week 9 loss to Wisconsin, the Buckeyes should retain it until hosting Penn State on Nov. 23, at worst.
Clifford must pick up his head while scrambling and be more efficient against top defenses. Slade needs to have a larger role, and Cain shouldn’t go an entire half without touching the ball. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has to correct these sustained cold stretches because they’ll be a potentially massive issue opposite an Ohio State-caliber team.
Still, the positives overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives, and nearly all of these positives appear on a weekly basis. On Saturday, the Nittany Lions showed off their best, and a bit of their worst, and earned a hugely important win anyway.
The road to the College Football Playoff only gets tougher from here, but Penn State has the build of a worthy contender.