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Penn State's offense again falls short of defensive effort in loss to Michigan

JON SAUBER
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) tackles Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

The question was a simple one.

Should the 21 points Penn State football's defense gave up Saturday afternoon have been enough to win the game against Michigan?

"I mean, 21, for a defense, (against the) No. 6 team in the country," senior safety Jaquan Brisker said, shrugging his shoulders. "You know what I mean? It is what it is."

At the end of the day, it wasn't as Penn State fell to the Wolverines 21-17 in Beaver Stadium.

But the matter of whether it should have been or not is a different story.

Penn State's defense did enough to earn a victory but the offense lagged behind once again in the team's fourth loss of the season.

While Brisker said a lot while saying little, he made sure to note the defense could have done more.

"We let too much on the board anyway," Brisker continued. "There's some points I feel like they shouldn't have even had. We let them drive. ... That's on us. A lot of things is on us. 21 points, that's too much."

The senior safety raises a valid point, but it's unfair to expect the defense to be perfect, especially against an offense that ranks No. 17 in the country according to ESPN's SP+, a tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency. The unit held the Michigan offense to 3.5 yards per carry and only 217 passing yards, but it still wasn't enough.

Blame falls on offense: The blame falls at the feet of an offense that ranked No. 47 in SP+, a unit that has failed to live up to expectations with a new offensive coordinator in Mike Yurcich and one of the best wide receivers in the country in senior Jahan Dotson.

The blame isn't consolidated to one portion of the unit, either. Nearly every player, sans Dotson, has not lived up to expectations this season or has struggled with issues that have prevented the team from taking the next step.

The play-calling, the passing, the blocking, the catching, the running — all of it has been faulty at different points this season. For large portions of the year it's been run blocking and rushing, but for the first time in a long time, that group found success against a good Michigan defense.

Running back Keyvone Lee said the group was just more detailed this time around.

"It was all the same," Lee said about what changed with the running game. "It's just goes back to being detailed. Little details, pressing and movement of the o-line. ... I just felt like I was more on my details today."

While the running game found success with Lee and senior John Lovett combining for 105 yards on 24 carries as the only two running backs to take the ball, there were struggles elsewhere.

Poor play-calling: In fact, play-calling could easily take the blame for what happened in the game — with two instances taking precedent in that arena.

The first was a fake field goal attempt that ended with kicker Jordan Stout losing 18 yards and fumbling the ball on fourth-and-goal from the two-yard line. Lee wasn't focused on the decision and the emotions that could have come with the offense coming off the field in the situation, saying he wanted to control what he could control and do what he had to in order to help the team. But Lee did admit, when asked, that he wanted to be on the field for the play.

"Of course," Lee said with a laugh. "Everybody wants to. You're a back in that situation that's like, what you're known for, you want to."

The second was the decision to throw a deep ball to redshirt senior Cam Sullivan-Brown on fourth-and-two on what would be the team's last offensive snap of the game. Sullivan-Brown — who has 17 career catches for 163 yards, including four for 44 yards this season — had a one-on-one with the Michigan defensive back, but redshirt senior quarterback Sean Clifford overthrew him. There was little separation for Sullivan-Brown on the play, which Penn State head coach James Franklin said would usually be a play for Dotson — who was unable to be in after suffering an injury the previous play.

"That's not the time you want to lose Jahan Dotson because at that point in the game, you're thinking players not play and trying to get the ball into your playmaker's hands," Franklin said. "That was a critical play in the game."

Still, for a time where it's about players and not plays, it was a curious decision to target a player who hadn't featured in the offense.

Franklin, when asked what made Sullivan-Brown the player to go to in that situation, did not elaborate on the decision to throw to the redshirt senior wide receiver.

"I guess my point was, that he asked about Jahan Dotson not being in there," Franklin said. "So I was talking about Jahan Dotson, you think players not plays in those situations. That's what I was referring to."

Team struggles without Dotson: Regardless of the reason, the play was a microcosm of the season for Penn State. When Dotson plays, the offense has a fighting chance to score on any given play. When he doesn't, the group often looks listless. Saturday afternoon was another one of those listless efforts, even when Dotson was on the field.

And — as has been the case all season — the defense did its job and did enough to earn the victory.

But the offense, once again, left it wondering what more it can do against the No. 6 team in the country.