Penn State is drawing quite a different arc to start 2021 than it did last season.
In Week 3, the Lions played one of their best games in recent years to defeat Auburn 28-20 and improve to 3-0. Contrast that with Week 3 of 2020, when Maryland trucked the Lions 35-19, dropping them to 0-3.
No. 6 Penn State looks for more poised, confident and assertive this season, which still has a long road ahead. But the team's grades through the season's first quarter reflect improvement in nearly every facet.
We're starting to see what this offense can become under coordinator Mike Yurcich. It lurched through the first half against Wisconsin, gathered some big-play confidence in the second half and has soared from there.
Yurcich runs the offense with tempo, mixes formations, motions players often and spreads his targets to create difficult-to-defend situations. Did you notice that, on tight end Brenton Strange's 40-yard reception, tackle Caedan Wallace was lined as a receiver?
Moreover, quarterback Sean Clifford quickly has made this offense his. Clifford began the season calling by himself "the most confident quarterback in the country," a statement he made based largely on the talent around him. But Clifford has been the offense's most improved player.
His completion rate (71.3 percent) is 11 points higher than his career total, his TD/INT ratio (4/1) is sound and he isn't making the high-impact mistakes of last year. Even better, Clifford's completion percentage has increased substantially each week, reaching 87.5 percent vs. Auburn. "From the first snap, I was seeing everything," he said after the game.
Plus, he has reliable targets. The Lions have caught 91 percent of their catchable passes, according to Sports Info Solutions. Jahan Dotson is an acrobat, Parker Washington is an exceptional route-runner and KeAndre Lambert-Smith averages 12.33 yards per reception.
Further, the offensive line has improved weekly, and the tight ends made their anticipated impact vs. Auburn. With a more consistent run game, Penn State's offense really could be special.
This unit largely is unrecognizable from last year, even though it returned several key starters. The Lions have held opponents without points on five of their 11 red-zone trips, the second-best percentage in the Big Ten. That Penn State has allowed 11 red-zone series is a problem but underscored what coach James Franklin said after the Auburn game.
"For the most part, we keep people out of the end zone," Franklin said. "We make big-time plays in critical moments."
The Lions already have four interceptions, tied with their 2020 mark, and a pick-6 by Jesse Luketa, who has been a remarkable story at defensive end. As has Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie, who is among the Big Ten leaders in quarterback hurries (8), hits (8) and knockdowns (5), according to SIS.
Penn State's secondary often looked lost and frayed in 2020 and thus allowed 15 passing touchdowns. But the Lions haven't allowed one this year behind safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji'Ayir Brown and cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields, Joey Porter Jr. and Daequan Hardy.
Ultimately, the Lions could bend less while they're not breaking. That 95-play outing vs. Wisconsin didn't help with the recovery process. In all, though, this defense barely resembles the 2020 version.
Jordan Stout is a fascinating story and another candidate for most-improved player. Last year, Stout ranked 10th in the Big Ten in punting (41.55 yards per attempt) with just three of 50+. This season, Stout leads the Big Ten in punt average (52.21) and has a career-long of 76. He also has 18 touchbacks in 18 kickoffs.
Certainly, Penn State wants more consistency on field goals (Stout is 4-for-6 and missed a 23-yarder) and more explosiveness on returns (ninth in the Big Ten on kickoffs). Still, the Lions made one huge special-teams play (Ebiketie's blocked field goal at Wisconsin) and mostly have been sharp under coordinator Joe Lorig.
Franklin has looked and sounded like a different coach this year, one who is working comfortably again with his family back home. He even handled the rumor regarding USC fairly well, keeping it from being a tangible distraction vs. Auburn.
Further, Franklin and his staff have begun answering the questions that preceded this season. How would Clifford and Co. handle their third different offense in three years? Could the defense rebound from 2020's miserable first half? And was Penn State ready for its three-game opening stretch?
Yurcich has been a healing salve for Clifford, and defensive coordinator Brent Pry seems to be getting the accountability he demanded during the offseason. Meanwhile, new coaches Anthony Poindexter (safeties) and Ty Howle (tight ends) are coaxing more and more from their units.
The opening stretch of Penn State's schedule didn't appear conducive to a 3-0 start. That the Lions ran it successfully, despite some occasionally shaky moments, underscored how far they have come since last December.
It also helped prove the thesis that Penn State's 2020 season was an outlier. The Lions have won 14 of their last 16 non-COVID-season games. As Franklin has said often, "We own what happened last year." It also seems that they learned from it.