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B1G Thoughts: Five questions for Penn State

After back-to-back disappointing seasons, James Franklin needs to get things heading in the right direction in Happy Valley.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s officially the football off-season, some teams are celebrating great seasons while others are stuck licking their wounds and mending their broken pride. Regardless of how the 2021 season ended, all 14 Big Ten teams must put it in their rear-view mirror and look forward to the 2022 season. There have been coaching changes, outgoing and incoming transfers, players leaving for the draft, new schemes, and new expectations. The off-season allows fans to dream of a successful 2022 campaign, and it’s up to each individual program to make that a reality.

While that process has started for the teams, as fans, we are beginning to ask the questions that programs need to answer to be successful. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do at Land-Grant Holy Land; Five Questions for each B1G team to answer this offseason.

Penn State entered the 2021 season looking to bounce back from a disappointing, COVID-impacted 2020. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, things did not go as planned as they ended the season at 7-6 and did not factor into the race for the Big Ten Championship. Going into the 2022 season, Penn State will hope to return to the ranks of the Big Ten elite, but after back-to-back disappointing seasons, they have a lot of work to do to reach that goal.

That work begins this off-season starting with answering these five questions:

Can James Franklin bounce back?

James Franklin has long been considered one of the best coaches in college football. He is the only coach to win at Vanderbilt in recent memory, ultimately landing him the Penn State job. After arriving at Penn State, he coached the Lions out from under scandal and into a position to be a powerhouse both in the B1G and nationally.

Franklin is the only coach who consistently puts a scare into Ohio State, as he always has his team ready to play and has been a few miraculous comebacks away from ruining multiple Ohio State seasons.

Lately though, it seems as if Franklin has lost his magic. After going 11-2 in 2019, Penn State went 4-5 in 2020 and 7-6 in 2021. The only consistent part of the Nittany Lions in recent years has been their defense; PSU’s offense, specifically their running game, has deteriorated significantly from the days of Saquon Barkley.

The Penn State administration has not lost faith in Franklin rewarding him with a new 10-year, $85 million contract, despite recent struggles. This coming season will be a pivotal year for Franklin to get his team back towards the top of the Big Ten.

How far can Sean Clifford take them?

Quarterback Sean Clifford refuses to move on from the Nittany Lions, announcing after last season that he plans to come back for his sixth (and presumably final) year of eligibility.

Unless incoming freshman Drew Allar takes the job away from him, it is safe to assume that Clifford will hold the reins for one last season. While consistency should be praised, this brings up an important question: What is Penn State’s ceiling with Clifford under center?

The QB has been the starter at PSU for 33 games, a span that includes two of the worst seasons under Franklin.

In 2021, Penn State was decent on offense with Clifford, but anemic without him. He is clearly not a game-changing quarterback; at his best Clifford is a game manager who can occasionally make big throws. But, at his worst, he does nothing to lift the offense and can’t put points on the board.

Penn State may be better off letting Allar play from Day One; let him take his lumps as a freshman, but eventually this will allow the highly-touted prospect to surpass Clifford much more quickly than if he held a clipboard for a season.

However, since that is unlikely, this offseason should be spent trying to teach an old dog new tricks in order to hold out hope that Clifford improves enough for the Nittany Lions to challenge in the Big Ten.

Can the running game be fixed?

In 2021, Penn State’s running game was abysmal. It was ineffective, uncreative, and lacked any spark or sense of cohesion. The Nittany Lions ranked 118th in the country in rushing offense, averaging 107 yards per game at 3.21 yards per carry. That is a huge drop off from 2020 where their run game, while still less than stellar, averaged 174 yards per game on 3.9 yards per carry.

The past few seasons have been a massive shift away from the running attacks under current pros Barkley and Miles Sanders. Without some form of substantial running game, there is no hope for Penn State in 2022 or beyond. Fixing their running game may be the most important task for Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurich.

Will the defense change under Manny Diaz?

Despite their offensive struggles over the past few seasons, Penn State’s defense has thrived, and has been largely responsible for a majority of their wins.

Led by former defensive coordinator Brent Pry and a stable of current and future NFL players like Odafe Oweh, Micah Parsons and Jaquan Brisker, the Nittany Lions have been a force to be reckoned with on that side of the ball. The success of Pry’s defense led to him getting to a head coaching job at Virginia Tech, leaving Franklin to hire a defensive coordinator for the first time since 2011.

If hires were judged based on name Franklin would get an A for hiring former Miami head coach Manny Diaz.

Unfortunately for Franklin, this hire will not be judged by name and Diaz has big shoes to fill. He will be tasked with — at minimum — maintaining PSU’s defensive success, but Penn State faithful should hope that the former Miami coach will bring fresh ideas that take their defense to a new level.

Diaz will have to hit the ground running because without a strong defense, the Nittany Lions may bottom out entirely.

How can they replace Jaquan Brisker and Jahan Dotson?

As I’ve previously mentioned, 2022 is a big year for Franklin and his Nittany Lions. The pressure of this season is raised due to the task of replacing two potential first-round picks. Jahan Dotson has been one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten for the past two years. He was essentially uncoverable and quickly became Clifford’s security blanket. When the running game wasn’t working — which was often — or a big play was desperately needed, Clifford could always count on Dotson.

Similarly on the defense, Jaquan Brisker was a tone setter and an eraser. The best safeties are defensive leaders, they rarely make mistakes, and can clean up mistakes made by their teammates. Brisker was that and more for PSU and has a chance to be the first safety taken off the board in the 2022 NFL draft.

With Brisker and Dotson, Penn State always had a chance, now they must go into potentially their most important season under Franklin without two of their best players. Those holes will be felt and must be addressed this offseason.