Skip to main content

What We Know About Penn State at 5-0

The 10th-ranked Lions get a bye week to press reset after two erratic games.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

Last week Penn State played slip-and-slide while fans groused about beer prices ($12 for a Yuengling?) and turnovers at Beaver Stadium, understandable considering the conditions and the game.

Penn State's last two wins, including the recent 17-7 victory over Northwestern, haven't inspired measurable confidence that this team can handle its October schedule. The No. 10 Lions visit No. 4 Michigan on Oct. 15, when their season will gain much more clarity.

Still, Penn State is 5-0, which means anything is possible. Plenty of teams are erratic, notably former No. 1 Georgia. In the meantime, some thoughts about Penn State's unbeaten start. 

The Return of PJ Mustipher

Penn State's standout defensive tackle earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2021 despite missing more than half the season with an injury. He was that good and is returning to that form.

Mustipher led Penn State with eight tackles and was credited with the stop on Northwestern's fourth-and-goal sneak attempt in the second half. With Mustipher and Hakeem Beamon, who broke consecutive fourth-quarter passes, playing well, Penn State certainly feels better about the center of its defensive line — particularly with the Michigan and Minnesota run games approaching.

"I’m close," Mustipher said after the Northwestern game. "I’m not there yet. I want to improve on some things but I’m getting there. I don’t know if I’m going to play my best football until the end of the season."

He already is from a recognition and leadership perspective. Mustipher called Northwestern's sneak attempt quickly and acted even more quickly.

"I remember PJ yelling, 'Sneak! Sneak! Sneak!’" defensive end Nick Tarburton said. "He was pretty much throwing me in the gap because he knew it was a sneak play."

Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher

Defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, who represented Penn State at the Big Ten football media days in July, made a team-high eight tackles in the win over Northwestern.

Manny Diaz Delivering on His Promise

When he arrived as defensive coordinator in December, Manny Diaz promised a fast, aggressive defense that would get stops by forcing turnovers. The Lions have forced 11 turnovers in their last three games (the team's best such stretch since 1996) and are tied for eighth nationally with 12.

Even after committing five turnovers against Northwestern, the Lions remain at plus-6 in turnover margin for the season, which leads the Big Ten. And everyone has had a hand.

Safeties Ji'Ayir Brown and Zakee Wheatley have two interceptions each. Six players have forced and recovered fumbles. Three have done both. On Saturday, it was Tarburton's turn.

"I call him Nick the bounty hunter," Brown said. "He's relentless. You know, he executes his job every time so you can count on him. A guy you can trust."

Get Brenton Strange More Touches

Franklin has said often that he would stack his tight end room against any in the country. Trouble is, the room hasn't been healthy. Theo Johnson missed the first two games, and Tyler Warren has been limited of late. The constant has been Brenton Strange.

Strange caught another touchdown pass against Northwestern, his team-high fourth this season on just 15 receptions. He also leaped another defender to reach the end zone.

"He's a weapon, especially when we cross the 50," quarterback Sean Clifford said. "He's a reliable target, he catches the ball really well, he runs really well and he loves to hurdle people obviously. He just loves going over the top."

Though Strange has emerged so assertively this season, Penn State has not used him enough, particularly Saturday. In grim conditions, the Lions did not throw to Strange again after the touchdown. That was a missed opportunity. He needs more targets.

Noteworthy

Clifford needed a break to right what ails him, especially in the deep-passing game. He had 14 completions of 40 yards or longer last season. Through five games, Clifford has just two, one of which was Strange's 67-yard score at Purdue that mostly was YAC.

Penn State's defense has five red-zone stops this season, including one at the goal line vs. Northwestern.

The freshmen had a freshman day against the Wildcats. Singleton and Allen combined for three fumbles, Abdul Carter seemed to freeze on Northwestern's long touchdown pass and Dani Dennis-Sutton took a roughing penalty. They've all been exceptional this season; just a reminder that they're still freshmen.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Crazy that Parker Washington, who leads Penn State with 20 catches, still doesn't have a touchdown. He scored four last season.

The Lions really need a No. 3 receiver to emerge with Washington and Mitchell Tinsley. KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who is supposed to be that player, has nine catches and was hurt Saturday. Harrison Wallace III could take advantage of his opportunity.

PENN STATE FANS: SI Tickets is your one-stop shop for tickets to a variety of Penn State sporting events, from football to basketball, hockey to volleyball. Need tickets to the Penn State game? Check out SI Tickets.

Read More

The surprise stars of Penn State's season

Is Penn State ready for Michigan?

Why Beano Cook really loved Penn State

Penn State's running back room changes again

The Lions' next road test: A Michigan Maize Out

Sean Clifford says Penn State's in a good spot after 5-0 start

Running back Devyn Ford no longer with the team

AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.

Read More

Sean Clifford says Penn State's in a good spot after 5-0 start

The Penn State-Northwestern report card

What we learned from Penn State's 17-7 win over Northwestern

Running back Devyn Ford no longer with the team

Sean Clifford has 'taken another step' this season, James Franklin says

Is Penn State rounding into a Big Ten contender?

Penn State inches closer to the top 10

Penn State is capitalizing on Chad Powers fever

James Franklin pitches new athlete dorms at Penn State

AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on Twitter @MarkWogenrich. And consider subscribing (button's on the home page) for more great content across the SI.com network.