Analyzing the 2021 Penn State Nittany Lions’ football team.
Here is part 10 of a 12-part series in which we count down the Michigan Wolverines football’s 2021 strength of schedule from its easiest game (No. 12) to its most difficult (No. 1).
Checking in at No. 3 is Penn State, who Michigan will square off with Nov. 13 in Happy Valley.
Head Coach: James Franklin (8th season) — 60-28 record (68.1 winning percentage)
2017 — 12th nationally
2018 — 5th
2019 — 11th
2020 — 15th
2021 — 27th
2020 Record: 4-5 (4-5 in Big Ten play)
The 2020 campaign was a tale of two halves for Penn State. The Nittany Lions began the year 0-5, with three of their five losses coming by 13 or more points. A Nov. 28 win at Michigan turned things around, however, with PSU ending the year on a four-game winning streak (including the U-M victory).
Granted, the final four triumphs came against subpar competition in Michigan, Rutgers, Michigan State and Illinois, but the four wins nevertheless came by an average of 19 points per game.
The final overall statistics actually weren’t too bad for the Nittany Lions when things were all said and done. The squad’s offense finished 37th nationally and its defense concluded a stellar 17th in the country.
Did You Know?
• Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, but has only won the league four times since then — 1994, 2005, 2008 and 2016.
• Michigan’s last win in Happy Valley came in Jim Harbaugh’s first season on the job of 2015, when the Wolverines picked up a 28-16 victory there. The Maize and Blue are just 1-5 in their last five trips to PSU, dating back to 2008.
• The home team has dominated the series as of late, winning nine of the last 12 matchups since 2007. The lone three exceptions were when Penn State won at U-M in 2009, when Michigan won in Beaver Stadium in 2015 and last season when the Nittany Lions came out victorious in Ann Arbor.
• Michigan holds an all-time record of 14-10 against Penn State.
Quarterback Sean Clifford has been a staple for the Penn State program, and returns once again in 2021 as a redshirt junior. He had an up-and-down 2020 campaign (60.6 completion percentage, 16 touchdowns and nine picks), but is expected to be the starter again following Will Levis’ (who saw plenty of action as well) transfer to Kentucky.
The running back stable should not only be one of the best in the Big Ten, but perhaps one of the best in the country as well. It was decimated by injuries last fall (sophomore Noah Cain received just three carries before being lost for the year, for example), but returns its top four rushers at the position in freshman Keyvone Lee, sophomore Devyn Ford, freshman Cazaiah Holmes and Cain.
Lee actually finished as the team’s leading rusher as a freshman with 438 yards, while Ford checked in second at the position with 274. A Nittany Lion passing attack that was potent in 2020 (40th in the country after throwing for 256 yards per game) brings back a lot of continuity in its receiving unit.
PSU returns seven of its top eight receiving leaders from 2020, with standout tight end Pat Freiermuth being the lone exception (23 catches for 310 yards). Wideout Jahan Dotson’s 884 receiving yards led the Big Ten in 2020 and his eight touchdown grabs tied for the conference lead, and he is back for another go-round as a junior.
Parker Washington had an outstanding freshman campaign as well by reeling in 489 yards and six touchdowns, and also returns. Penn State finished 26th nationally in rush defense last year and 24th against the pass, but loses two of its three defensive all-conference performers in defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney.
Senior safety Jaquan Brisker is back, though, after being named a third-team all-conference member by the coaches. The Nittany Lions also bring back their top two tacklers from last season in linebackers Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa, who racked up a combined 117 tackles in 2020.
Sophomore Brandon Smith also returns at linebacker after chipping in 37 stops of his own. PSU’s defensive line was the position unit that was hit the hardest with departures in the forms of Oweh, Toney and defensive end Shane Simmons, but also returns some key cogs in junior defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher (35 tackles) and sophomore defensive end Adisa Isaac (13 stops and 1.5 sacks).
Despite the graduation of multi-year starting safety Lamont Wade from the secondary, Penn State’s defensive backfield remains in phenomenal shape. PSU brings back seven of its eight leading tacklers from the secondary (Wade being the exception), including notable returnees in the aforementioned Brisker, redshirt freshman cornerback Joey Porter, redshirt junior safety Jonathan Sutherland, sophomore cornerback Keaton Ellis and senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields.
Why No. 3 in the Countdown?
The 2020 season was one of the few subpar campaigns Franklin has had in State College, so it’s fair to expect the Nittany Lions to bounce back in a big way in 2021. Plenty of experience returns on both sides of the ball for a club who ended last year on fire after engineering an impressive turnaround.
On top of that, it’s never easy to play in Beaver Stadium. Michigan has not fared well on the road in recent years in general, and Happy Valley is one of the toughest environments in all of college football.
A trip to Beaver Stadium would oftentimes check in more difficult than No. 3 on a list like this, but a trek to Madison, Wis., and a showdown against Ohio State are the only reason this game wasn’t rated higher.
No. 12: Northern Illinois
No. 11: Western Michigan
No. 10: Rutgers
No. 9: Maryland
No. 8: Michigan State
No. 7: Washington
No. 6: Nebraska
No. 5: Northwestern
No. 4: Indiana