COLLINS: Penn State offense offers reason for hope about 2021 season

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) throws a second quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Jahan Dotson as Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler (5) rushes him during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

At one point in the second half of a game between a team that spent most of the 2020 season underwhelming and another that looked grossly overmatched, the former emptied the bench.

On offense for Penn State, the line consisted of tackles Des Holmes and Caedan Wallace, guard Anthony Whigan and Juice Scruggs, and center Mike Miranda. Will Levis and Sean Clifford were both in at quarterback. Caziah Holmes got carries at running back. KeAndre Lambert Smith and Parker Washington were lining up at receiver, and Brenton Strange caught a pass at tight end.

The significance shouldn't have been lost. That very well could be the offense Penn State trots onto the field to start the 2021 season, hopefully next September.

This season should have taught Penn State fans a lot of things — not putting too much stock in how the team looked last time you saw it chief among them.

At one point, not too long ago, Penn State seemed to be a program adrift, somewhat lost at sea, fighting like mad against the tide. Now, it hardly looks like a team with no hope of getting ashore.

Winning changes that quickly, of course.

So does the reality that existed throughout the 0-5 start, the same one that had everyone so excited about this program at the start of it all.

Lots of talent: There's talent here. A lot of it.

"Usually, you get a game like that early in the season, where you can get guys in the game, be able to evaluate them and build on it," head coach James Franklin said. "It also creates a healthy locker room, the more guys that are getting a chance to participate in the game."

For the most part, this is not a matter of talent for Penn State. Against every team but one in the Big Ten and around 95 percent of the FBS in general — if not more — they match up well.

It's about getting the right pieces, together at the right time. And so, the questions moving forward will be pertinent for this team, and the answers will be critical.

QB rotation: For starters, they need to determine whether this quarterback rotation can work, whether they'll be better off picking either Clifford or Levis, or if they'll even have both to choose from, to begin with.

The rotation provided plenty of angst for fans who wanted to see a more diverse Levis and less running from Clifford, but it was effective. Once Franklin and his staff decided to simply play both in the situations that made the most sense to do so — Clifford at the start of longer drives, and Levis in four-minute situations — Penn State ran the ball and protected it at a level that allowed them to win games.

But is that an offense that is sustainable?

The easy decision might be to go with Clifford, a seasoned hand, a guy going into what would have been his senior season who can do a little bit of everything. But can the staff develop Levis, who has shown better running ability, a big arm in his own right, and a bit better ability to protect the football consistently.

Franklin was visibly upset in the first quarter, when Clifford fumbled deep in his own territory, leading to an Illinois touchdown. He completed 16 of 22 passes for 285 yards and two scores, but Levis completed 3 of his 5 throws as well.

Lots of weapons, especially if Dotson returns: Whoever quarterbacks this team next season will have plenty of weapons. Jahan Dotson had such a strong 2020 that some wonder if he'll enter the 2021 NFL Draft. If he does, Penn State will have a solid group of receivers who combined for eight catches Saturday, and that's with a slow night from Washington factored in.

And at running back, true freshmen Keyvone Lee and Holmes combined for 162 rushing yards and three touchdowns, working to bail out a Penn State offense in a season when it really was riding by the seat of their pants. Next year, it's going to have Noah Cain back, and likely Devyn Ford, too.

Reasons (excuses?) for early struggles: There were plenty of reasons (excuses, perhaps) this team struggled out of the gate. It had a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, a new receivers coach, a new offensive line coach. There's no debate all of those positions got better as the season progressed. There should also be no question that this was a crazy year, one that provided little-to-no normalcy for anyone involved, at any level. Off the field. On the practice field. In an empty Beaver Stadium.

All of that should be better next season. This should be a more comfortable team in the locker room, and a more competitive one with each other on the practice field.

"It's exciting," Clifford said of the offense's development. "I think week one definitely looked a lot different. I look at the preseason and think about what we thought it would look like and what it looks like now, and I'm thankful for it now."

Reasons for hope: What does that mean? It's so difficult to tell. We don't know what next year brings, after all.

But in the vacuum that is just football, a world we all hope we're back in late next summer, it gives Penn State something it worked so hard to attain, and something nobody really thought they'd have just a few weeks ago.

Hope. If this year taught us anything, that's a lot.