Ahead of Saturday’s matchup between the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2) and the No. 16-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (5-1), we were able to connect with Dustin Hockensmith, a sports reporter for Penn Live, and he was kind enough to field our questions.
The Daily Gopher: There seems to be a growing frustration, at least among a subset of fans, with Sean Clifford’s play at quarterback. How has the sixth-year signal caller become such a polarizing figure?
Dustin Hockensmith: This is a loaded question at what should be a critical juncture in Clifford’s career, though James Franklin has given zero indication that he would consider benching his quarterback. The first angle for that growing frustration is that Franklin choosing and sticking with Clifford sent Tommy Stevens (Mississippi State) and Will Levis (Kentucky) to the SEC, where they both became starters for their respective teams. There’s also the fact that Clifford has been a one-step-forward, one-step-back guy throughout his career, where the so-so outweighs his flashes.
At this point, many Penn State fans feel like they’ve seen more than enough of Clifford to know they aren’t going to witness significant growth from him. He has limitations, and neither he nor Franklin seem to recognize or acknowledge them. So, when true freshman Drew Allar flashes arm talent, pocket awareness, and poise, the Beaver Stadium faithful are chomping at the bit to see more of him.
TDG: Penn State was averaging 38.5 points per game through the first four games. But their offense has hit the skids in their last two contests, scoring only 17 points per game. When the offense is struggling to put up points, what are the root causes?
DH: Everything just feels like it’s gotten stale and unimaginative, and a similar pattern played out last season before Clifford was injured at Iowa. The peak of Mike Yurcich’s creativity seemed to happen at home against Auburn last season and on the road at Auburn this season before it started to fizzle out.
The underwhelming performance against Central Michigan also came with a potential blueprint for future opponents because the Lions were physically unable to conquer the Chippewas’ Cover Zero looks. The deep passing game has been severely lacking — Clifford has the lowest connection rate in America on 20-plus yard throws, according to Pro Football Focus — so traffic has increased in the short and intermediate parts of the field.
The path forward would ideally include finding a spark in the deep passing game, but again, Clifford has limitations there and Penn State’s wideouts are on the small side and don’t exactly thrive in that situation. From my perspective, it’s a fundamental flaw and weakness that isn’t going away.
TDG: Minnesota has one of the best running backs in the Big Ten, if not the country, so naturally they are going to want to run the ball. What can they expect from the Nittany Lions’ defensive front?
DH: One can do the math after allowing 418 yards to Michigan and assume that concepts such as gap discipline, leverage, effort, and physicality have been huge parts of the practice routine this week.
Penn State has talent in the middle of its defense, but its second-best tackle, Hakeem Beamon, weighs 260 pounds. Starting middle linebacker Tyler Elsdon comes up short in athleticism and mobility, and strong-side linebacker Jonathan Sutherland is a converted safety.
The good news on that front is that a White Out crowd probably helps the defensive line more than any other position group on Penn State’s roster. I would also expect to see a ton of bodies near the line of scrimmage to try and clog every lane and dare the Golden Gophers to throw. That will especially be true if Tanner Morgan were to miss the game.
TDG: Penn State has a talented secondary, but they’ve given up a fair amount of yards through the air. Are there weak spots in coverage that Minnesota might be able to exploit?
DH: I do think the passing volume numbers are a very deceptive thing when looking at Penn State on paper. Penn State challenged a bevy of mediocre quarterbacks to try and move the ball through the air, and when they did, they got some numbers but were wildly inefficient in doing so. Penn State currently ranks No. 6 in pass efficiency defense and leads the nation in passes defended with 52.
Joey Porter Jr. is the big name, and deservedly so, but Kalen King is a Pro Football Focus darling who was just called midseason All-American. Daequan Hardy is a veteran nickel who will probably play a few years in the pros, and Johnny Dixon and Marquis Wilson are both starting-caliber corners for a majority of Big Ten teams. Coordinator Manny Diaz relies on that depth and coverage skill in how he calls plays, often asking them to hold up one-on-one.
The safeties are also very, very good and run four deep around future high NFL draft pick Ji’Ayir Brown. It really is a deep, talented, and experienced group that has a newfound ability to punish bad throws.
TDG: What is your score prediction for the game?
DH: I’ve got Penn State covering the point spread by stretching a tight game with a late score, 28-20. Both the offense and defense need wake-up calls and should get what they need from the White Out crowd. The players are fortunate that fans will feel obligated to be enthusiastic in this game because many of them are feeling as much apathy as ever about Franklin, Clifford, and the program’s prospects.