Freshmen Show Encouraging Signs for Penn State Football’s Future
For the first time since Dec. 28, 2019, the Penn State Nittany Lions won a football game, defeating the Michigan Wolverines 27-17. While strong execution, victory in the turnover battle and overall excellent defensive play were key to Saturday’s win, perhaps the most encouraging sign came from the future—that is, to say, the freshmen.
Penn State’s season has been ravaged by injuries, the most notable coming on offense, as running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain and tight end Pat Freiermuth all had their seasons cut short. Those setbacks placed the burden to contribute quickly on the more inexperienced members of the team. On Saturday, those pieces finally came together.
“One of the things that I’ve been proud of over my six years is that we’ve won in different ways: clean, dirty, ugly, comebacks, blowouts—and we hadn’t done that this year,” head coach James Franklin said. “To see some young guys that were forced into significant roles figure it out today, make plays, do some of the dirty work, and play winning football… It was great to see.”
No freshman was more noticeable than Keyvone Lee. With Brown, Cain and now Devyn Ford unavailable (Ford for non-medical reasons), the back who was listed fourth-string to begin the season was tasked with managing the workload on the ground. Needless to say, he more than managed. Lee was dynamite, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on 22 attempts for 134 total rushing yards and one touchdown.
It was the Nittany Lions’ first 100-yard rushing performance from a single player since quarterback Sean Clifford’s 119-yard day against Indiana in Week 1. Penn State has notoriously struggled to get going on the ground this season, but Lee might have unlocked something.
“[Lee] is 230 pounds, he breaks tackles, and he falls forward,” Franklin said. “You don’t get a whole lot of reps at fourth and fifth on the depth chart. So, for me to say that I saw this coming, it would be hard to say since the reps were so limited.”
The Nittany Lions’ 254-yard rushing attack was the primary facet on offense against Michigan: a stark change from the unbalanced 394-yard passing/94-yard rushing performance against Maryland less than a month ago. And yet, even with Clifford being held to just 163 passing yards and no passing touchdowns on the day, Penn State’s offense was not one-dimensional. The main reason for that was Parker Washington.
“I don’t know the last time a true freshman had nine catches,” Franklin said.
Indeed, Washington hauled in nine receptions for 93 yards, both career highs for the 18-year-old. He far-and-away led the Nittany Lions’ air game, with Jahan Dotson and Isaac Lutz tied for second, each tallying 30 yards on three hauls. In four of the last five games, Washington has posted at least 70 receiving yards.
Freiermuth is a difficult, maybe impossible, presence to replace, but Washington’s recent performances as the No. 2 receiver behind Dotson have left the Nittany Lions with multiple threats to move the ball through the air.
“[Washington] is somebody I have a lot of trust in now,” Clifford said. “He’s working really hard. He hasn’t wavered through adversity. I’m excited to keep grinding with him.”
Lee and Washington weren’t the only freshmen to contribute to the win. Fellow back Caziah Holmes put up 34 yards on 10 rushes, while redshirt freshman right tackle Caedan Wallace made his third start as part of an offensive line that didn’t allow a sack all day.
On the defensive side of the ball, redshirt freshman Joey Porter Jr. tallied four solo tackles and one pass breakup. Porter, in particular, had to step up with senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields missing his third straight game.
“It felt good just to get that win,” Porter said. “We were just tired of losing. We wanted to show everybody that that’s not us, and we showed it today. Now we just have to continue.”
At 1-5, Penn State’s 2020 season is largely shot. But Saturday’s performances from Lee, Washington and a talented cast of freshmen bring hope to the Nittany Lions’ uncertain future.
DJ Bauer is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.