Skip to main content
Publish date:

What to Expect From Penn State in the Season's Second Half

The Lions must confront multiple issues to remain contenders in the Big Ten.

Penn State's James Franklin embarked on a four-day, six-state recruiting tour during the bye week, a trip that included some time with former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar watching future Penn State quarterback Drew Allar.

Franklin returned home Saturday to resume dealing with his current quarterbacks and how to handle them for the season's second half. Penn State hosts Illinois on Saturday likely knowing which quarterback it plans to start, whether that's Sean Clifford, Ta'Quan Roberson or Christian Veilleux. But Franklin hasn't, and likely won't, name a starter publicly until the starting lineup is announced about 15 minutes before the noon kickoff.

And thus will begin Round 2 of an already wild Penn State season. The No. 7 Lions (5-1) play Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in a five-week span, get another night game (at Ohio State) and could host their second White Out of the season (vs. Michigan).

Meanwhile, Franklin likely will deal with more questions about job openings elsewhere (this time at LSU) and, who knows, may enter (or get dragged into) another feud. Franklin already has done that with SEC officials and Iowa fans.

So what's in store for the second half of Penn State's 2021 season? Let's make a few predictions.

The Iowa Game Won' Define Ta'Quan Roberson

The third-year quarterback was shoved out of the plane and into a dogfight at Iowa, where he never found his legs. And he hasn't been an effective passer this season.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Roberson has thrown 12 on-target passes (defined as hitting the receiver in stride) in 28 attempts. But he's done that as the backup quarterback getting backup reps in practice.

Working with the starters for two weeks, Roberson should develop some rapport with the offense. And coordinator Mike Yurcich knows how to shape offenses around his talent. Expect Roberson to look much better against Illinois than he did at Iowa.

Penn State quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson throws a pass against Iowa (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

Penn State quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson throws a pass against Iowa (Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)

But Penn State Isn't Contending Without Sean Clifford

Penn State began the season 5-0, and with College Football Playoff hopes, partly because Yurcich rightly threw his full preseason attention at Clifford. Clifford's completion percentage and TD/interception ratio improved, as did his decision-making. Clifford has been the team's most improved and, as the Iowa game illustrated, its most valuable player.

The Big Ten East remains up for grabs, and Penn State plays two of its toughest remaining games on the road (at Ohio State and Michigan State). The Lions likely will need to score 24+ in those venues to win. They're not likely to do that without Clifford.

Keyvone Lee Sees More Prime Playing Time

The running game has been among Penn State's bigger disappointments this season. A variety of factors has contributed to the Lions setting a pace for their lowest single-season rushing total since 2014 (not including the shortened 2020 season). But the running backs shoulder much of that responsibility.

Read More

Penn State ranks 13th in the Big Ten in yards after contact (ahead of only Purdue) with 372. That mattered less with Clifford at quarterback. A struggling passer will exacerbate the run game's issues.

As a result, Keyvone Lee needs to get more carries. The back leads Penn State in yards (202), yards per carry (5.4), yards after contact (114) and broken tackles (9). His two fumbles (none lost) have affected his playing time, but Lee should be the featured carrier. especially considering the position's injury issues. John Lovett and Devyn Ford were hurt at Iowa, and Noah Cain hasn't looked 100 percent yet this season. Lee could be a difference-maker as a 20-carry back.

Arnold Ebiketie Must Be Even Better

Franklin last week called Ebiketie "maybe our best defensive player," quite the declarative considering how safety Jaquan Brisker is playing and how defensive tackle PJ Mustipher played before his season-ending injury. But the defensive end might be Penn State's most impactful player.

According to Sports Info Solutions, Ebiketie leads the team in quarterback pressures (23), hurries (14), hits (11) and knockdowns (5). He affects so many more passing downs than his four sacks suggest. Ebiketie also leads the Lions with nine tackles for loss.

But without Mustipher beside him, Ebiketie faces a tougher road. Mustipher freed tie-ups and opened rush lanes for the defensive end, who now might see some of those opportunities close. Ebiketie will earn his draft stock in the season's second half.

Penn State Gets Even More Creative With Jahan Dotson

Receiver Jahan Dotson caught six touchdown passes, and threw two completions of his own, through the first five games. Then, Sean Clifford exited, and his opportunities to catch passes dissolved.

After Clifford was injured at Iowa, Dotson was targeted just six times, caught two of them for five yards and ended his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass at six. Dotson has been a magician this year, leading the Big Ten with 43 receptions and no drops. He and Mississippi State's Jo'quavious Marks are the nation's only receivers with 40+ receptions and no drops.

Yurcich has been creative in involving Dotson but could rely on Clifford to steer the offense. If Clifford misses any significant time, Yurcich has to find more ways to get Dotson the ball while nurturing the strengths of his new quarterback. It's a delicate situation, once necessary to get right for the offense to shape some success without Clifford.

Read more

Up Next: Penn State looks to get right against Illinois

Penn State fans still making Big Ten championship game reservations

Penn State-Illinois breakdown and prediction