The 2021 college football season didn't go quite according to plan for the Penn State Nittany Lions. After jumping out to a 5-0 start to the season highlighted by a road win at Wisconsin and a prime-time victory at home against Auburn, Penn State hit a few speedbumps the rest of the way. But despite finishing the regular season with a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten East with a 7-5 record, the Nittany Lions still get a chance to end their year with a win in a New Years Day bowl game.
Penn State will face Arkansas in the Outback Bowl for the first meeting in program history. But the season as a whole feels like a bit of a letdown after early success raised the bar for expectations in Happy Valley. Despite the struggles this season, there were some good takeaways to enjoy from the regular season.
Offensive MVP: Jahan Dotson, WR
Penn State's best offensive player was one of the best wide receivers in the country. Dotson had 91 receptions for 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns during the 2021 season, all of which had him ranked among the top receivers in the Big Ten.
Defensive MVP: Arnold Ebiketie, DE
One of the best additions to the roster this fall was Ebiketie, a transfer from Temple. It didn't take long for the new guy to leave his impact as he made some big plays in the season opener at Wisconsin, including blocking a field goal. Ebiketie led Penn State with 18 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks.
Best Freshman: Christian Veilleux, QB
Kalen King was the most heralded freshman on the roster and he got some playing time at various points, but the freshman who made the most noise was Veilleux. He appeared in just one game when he replaced an injured Sean Clifford against Rutgers. Veilleux turned in an encouraging performance, but it remains to be seen just where he fits into the picture moving forward.
Best Play of the Season: Jahan Dotson climbs the ladder against Auburn
Picking just one play by Dotson this season is unfair. But his effort to make a big catch on a pass that seemed to be flying well above him against Auburn probably ranks right up there. The catch was a big one as the Tigers, who led 10-7 at the time of the play, may have had an easy interception if not for the Dotson catch that would have put Bo Nix and the Auburn offense in a good spot on the field.
Best Performance (Player): Dotson's record day vs. Maryland
There's that Dotson guy again. He turned in a career day with 242 receiving yards and three touchdowns in an early November game at Maryland. Dotson set a new school record for the most receiving yards in a single game, helping Penn State snap a three-game losing streak.
Best Performance (Team): Getting revenge on Indiana
Indiana failed to replicate the success of its 2020 season, and that played perfectly into the hands of Penn State. A season after starting the schedule on a controversial losing note in Bloomington, the Nittany Lions were dominant in all areas of the game against the Hoosiers in Happy Valley. Penn State's offense had 209 rushing yards as a team and the defense allowed just 264 yards of total offense in a 24-0 shutout.
Defining Moment: Sean Clifford getting injured at Iowa
Penn State was in control against Iowa on the road in early October in a showdown of Big Ten unbeaten teams. But an injury to Clifford derailed the Nittany Lions' chances of getting out of Iowa City with a win. Up 17-3 at the time Clifford made his way to the locker room, Penn State's offense went MIA for the remainder of the game under backup quarterback Taquan Roberson, who was no match for the Hawkeyes' feisty, ball-hawking secondary.
Biggest Surprise: Losing at home to Illinois
Penn State struggled against the best teams on its schedule in 2021 and came out on the wrong end of some close games. But the Nittany Lions also lost to Illinois in a nine-overtime game. Even for a down season and with Clifford banged up, losing to the Illini at home in the way they did was shocking.
Biggest Disappointment: Three preseason Doak Walker Award watch list players and zero 100-yard rushing games
Penn State's running game was expected to be better than it turned out to be this season. The Nittany Lions landed three players on the Doak Walker Award watch list prior to the season (Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, John Lovett), but the Nittany Lions failed to have any single player rush for 100 yards in a game. Much of the blame can fall on the offensive line's inability to create space and get a push up front.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Jaquan Brisker, Safety
The anchor of the Penn State secondary could have left for the NFL a year ago, so his return to the defense in 2021 was a major plus for the Nittany Lions. But Brisker will be entering the draft after coming up with incredible performances all season long with big pass breakups, interceptions and tackles.
Player to Watch in 2022: Nicholas Singleton, RB
Penn State has some issues to work through with its running game, but Singleton should give fans something to look forward to. The 2021 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year is one of the true stars of the incoming Class of 2022. Even though he'll be a true freshman, he may have the best shot to play early in a significant role.
Offseason Storyline: Welcome to Happy Valley, Manny Diaz
Penn State has some coaching changes underway. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry left to become a head coach at Virginia Tech, and James Franklin welcomed Diaz, formerly the head coach at Miami, to take on this role. Franklin may have his best combo of coordinators with Mike Yurcich on offense and Diaz on defense, and the incoming recruiting class is loaded. But the Nittany Lions showed in 2021 they have some areas of concern that need to be improved, mostly with the offensive line and running game, to take care of beginning in the offseason and into spring football.