Penn State couldn't overcome a tenacious and effective passing attack by Minnesota and an inconsistent performance by Sean Clifford en route to falling 31-26 to the Gophers on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions made nearly enough adjustments to win the game, getting second half stops and driving the ball in the final minutes for a chance to steal a victory. It wasn't to be as an offensive pass interference call on Daniel George backed Penn State all the way up from the two to the 25 and one final Clifford interception sealed the deal.
In some ways Penn State lost for reasons that have plagued it all season. Mental errors on offense, and the occasional chunk play given up by the defense. It was the perfect storm of Minnesota playing great, and Penn State having an off day and also not being quite as good as advertised.
So how do the grades come out of Saturday's loss? A bit mixed.
I think there are really two schools of thought here. On the one hand Penn State had over 500 yards of offense and converted half (8/16) of its third down opportunities. It's hard to say that Penn State didn't move the ball or that the offense struggled in a way that was wildly different than the rest of the season. So compared to say, a blowout loss to Michigan last year, it's not as though Penn State didn't show up and play at a level competent enough to win the game.
The other side of this coin was six red zone trips and just two touchdowns to show for it. Coming into Saturday Penn State was ranked 11th in the nation in terms of the percentage of red zone trips that ended with a touchdown. On Saturday that efficiency was nowhere to be found. Be that execution or play calling, it didn't click.
Overall Journey Brown was solid with 124 yards, and Pat Freiermuth and KJ Hamler had 101 and 119 yards receiving respectively.
This grade is low because of the red zone and because of three interceptions by Sean Clifford. We can argue about potential interference calls on two of them, but the fact remains Clifford was not sharp for most of the game and his interceptions were questionable throws from the outset, legal picks or not.
In a lot of ways this group did enough to win and didn't, but it's also part of the reason why things didn't work out.
Brent Pry's defense has struggled before, because that's how football works, but it's hard to think of a time where Minnesota players were that open. James Franklin said following the game that basically this was the result of committing a lot of players to stopping the run, and leaving Penn State's coverage guys in single situations or zone, against Minnesota's talented receiving corps.
How to go about assigning "blame" for that is tough because it's the result of a few things. Minnesota's offense is too quick in the passing game to really get pressure and single coverage is inherently difficult. All told Penn State's defense made stops it had to in the second half, but was otherwise constantly under siege.
It ought to be said that Tanner Morgan was outstanding in the pocket, and for every self-inflicted wound Penn State suffered, Morgan was there with a great pinpoint pass. He was the best quarterback on the field all day by a fairly wide margin, even if Clifford strung enough plays together late to give Penn State a chance to win.
Special Teams: B+
Blake Gillikin had solid punts in difficult situations and Jake Pinegar was perfect on a day where Penn State needed all the help it could get. KJ Hamler had a 27-yard return but was otherwise unremarkable in the return game. The only reason this grade is low is simply because Penn State could have used a big play in this area to help turn the tide. On the one hand the Nittany Lions had enough returns to manufacture a chance, on the other hand, the way kicks are setup in 2019, it's made with the intention of decreasing the incentive to try and attempt a return.
It's just not a performance that leaves a good taste in your mouth. Penn State did enough to win, somewhat amazingly, and that counts for something. But overall this grade is based on how the game unfolded and how we've seen Penn State play in the past. The turnovers, the porous defense and the result hurt this grade. Ironically the biggest thing about this game was how Penn State's defense played, and in more than a few conferences that kind of performance would have been just about average. Minnesota is a lot better than people thought and has a compelling argument that it can win in the West. Let's not bash Penn State for losing to a team like that, simply how it went about playing.
This is an insanely broad topic to try and cover and one that will never be entirely fair. The big thing here is the four play sequence in the red zone that went run/run/run and a fade to KJ Hamler. My working assumption is that the runs were largely the product of read plays and not straight up run calls. To me the fade is just a poor situation in that close with one of the shortest players on the field. KJ Hamler is a open space player, not a corner end zone guy.
Football is complex and we often don't know the full extent of a coach's thought process, but that sequence seemed poor no matter the reason.