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For Penn State, 2021 Was a Missed Opportunity

Saturday's loss to Michigan State delivered a frustrating end to a maddening regular season.

Recall Oct. 9, when Penn State was 5-0 and led Iowa 17-3 early in the second quarter. Then quarterback Sean Clifford went from the field to the injury tent to the locker room. He did not return, and neither did Penn State's season.

The Lions' 30-27 loss to Michigan State on Saturday refreshed a season's worth of frustrations and complaints among players, coaches and fans alike: offensive line, run game and defensive breakdowns at critical moments. It also underscored what made this team impossible to count out each week: Jahan Dotson's magic, the defense's big-play ability and Clifford's heart.

And yet, Saturday's game in East Lansing seemed a proper finish to a disappointing regular season. From 5-0 to 7-5, with the losses being decided by an average of 4.2 points. Penn State's 2022 campaign will be remembered as one great missed opportunity. Perhaps not on par with 2017, but maddening nonetheless.

That said, some thoughts on Saturday's game and this season of lost chances.

First, it's not about the contract

James Franklin's new 10-year contract has nothing to do with Saturday's loss. It wasn't a contributing or ancillary factor, proved nothing about its merit and didn't saddle Penn State with an albatross. That will be determined in the future.

No doubt, though, this could be considered Franklin's most disappointing regular season in his eight years at Penn State. The first two seven-win seasons were sanctioned, and 2020 languished under the many restraints of COVID. Franklin had no such mitigating factors this year. He owns 7-5 in its totality.

Michigan State's Jayden Reed catches a touchdown pass against Penn State's Johnny Dixon. (Raj Mehta/USA Today Sports)

Michigan State's Jayden Reed catches a touchdown pass against Penn State's Johnny Dixon. (Raj Mehta/USA Today Sports)

Penn State's offense needs a thorough reconsideration

Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich arrived with a thunderclap of expectation last winter. Franklin finally had the coordinator he coveted for several years. But the results didn't match the buildup.

Yurcich's offense did not score more than 30 points against a Power 5 opponent. Its scoring average is 26.4 points per game, the program's lowest since 2015. With a first-year starter in Clifford, and Ricky Rahne as the coordinator, Penn State's 2019 offense averaged 35.8 per game.

Penn State generated fewer than 100 yards rushing in seven of 12 games. It has not produced a 100-yard rusher, potentially for the first time since 1978.

"Year's not over yet," Franklin said curtly after the game.

The sticking point, however, has been Franklin's insistence on running into this headwind the entire season — and again Saturday. Certainly, the increasingly snowy conditions made throwing more difficult as the game wore on.

But Michigan State's Payton Thorne managed to complete 12 of 19 passes for 140 yards in the second half, despite the pick-6 he threw straight to Penn State's Daequan Hardy. The Lions, meanwhile, ran 25 times and threw 13 in the second half — after Clifford had thrown for 173 yards in the first half.

"We were trying to mix the run game in all day long, to try to help our offensive line in protection," Franklin said. "But obviously we weren't able to run the ball consistently when we needed to."

Later, Franklin repeated his primary takeaway of 2022: "I want to be able to run the ball."

He and Yurcich seemed to engage in a season-long push-pull regarding the run game. Franklin has said he prods Yurcich in-game to run more; Yurcich, meanwhile, appeared to prefer throwing with Clifford, particularly in short-yardage situations.

The run game, no doubt, will undergo a significant offseason evaluation.

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The offensive line will go under the microscope as well

At some point in his next contract, Franklin has to recruit and develop an offensive line that achieves one of his headliner goals: to run the ball effectively when everyone in the stadium knows you're running.

Saturday's conditions certainly benefitted Michigan State, which could power-run behind Kenneth Walker III (138 yards), and constrained Penn State's finesse offense. Still, the Lions' offensive line remains unable to impose its will on anyone.

Running back Keyvone Lee was met in the backfield almost instantly on his fourth-and-one attempt in the fourth quarter. The Lions ran into Michigan State fronts, which essentially were invitations to run, without a consistent measure of success.

Penn State's offensive line has been an eight-year disappointment, across five offensive coordinators and three position coaches. It really wasn't much more effective this season than during the sanction years of 2014 and '15, when Franklin was converting defensive linemen to play offense.

And until the Lions get consistent line play, the offense will remain a work-in-progress.

Sean Clifford is a warrior

The sight of Clifford running across his goal line on 4th and 24 in the game's final minutes was breathtaking. He somehow managed to evade a sack, safety or worse and hit Brenton Strange for the Lions' longest fourth-down conversion of the season.

That led to a touchdown pass to Parker Washington, which gave the Lions a breath of life in the last minutes. Whatever Clifford's flaws, he gamed until the end.

Clifford has faced three years of trial and torment as the starting quarterback, playing through injuries, a benching, illness and nearly 80 career sacks. Yet there he was, fleeing the Michigan State rush in the waning minutes of a loss, desperately attempting to convert 4th and 24.

Ultimately, whether he returns for a sixth season or not, that will be one of the defining plays of Clifford's career.

Questions requiring answers

Did the defense run out of gas? Michigan State scored touchdowns on four of its five red-zone possessions, bucking a trend against the Lions this season. And the 99-yard touchdown drive was a debilitating moment for an otherwise stout defense.

Where was Penn State's pass rush, in general and specifically on Thorne's 4th-and-15 touchdown pass to Jayden Reed in the fourth quarter? Penn State freshman safety Jaylen Reed had hurried Thorne into an incompletion on the previous play. But the Lions didn't appear to send pressure on fourth down. They finished the game with no sacks and one quarterback hurry (by Reed).

Did Penn State look to Jahan Dotson enough? The receiver was targeted 11 times, catching eight passes for 137 yards and two scores. Clifford found him on a 4th-and-3 conversion in the fourth quarter. But Dotson was targeted only twice thereafter. Against the nation's least-effective pass defense, Dotson should have been a bigger factor.

What might have been for the field-goal unit with a healthy Jake Pinegar? Special teams coach Joe Lorig said Pinegar, whose career success rate is 73.5 percent, lost time this preseason due to a back injury, and Jordan Stout emerged as the top placekicker. Stout had an exceptional season punting but went 16-for-23 in field goals and missed a 27-yarder (and an extra point) Saturday. Pinegar then took his first kick of the season, making the extra point on the Lions' final touchdown.

Why did Franklin call the timeout before Stout's missed field goal? His explanation: "We were just trying to burn as much time off the clock as possible until after we kicked the field goal."

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