What a year for Penn State fans...what a year. Big Ten Champions. Eleven wins. At the end of the year ranked #5 in the country with an outside shot at playing for a national title in 2016...hard to believe.
I know that Penn State's success this year rankled some of you.
The last time we had 11 wins was in 2009, which ended in a win over LSU in the Capital One Bowl... That team was loaded with NFL talent...but mostly on defense. Guys like Navorro Bowman, Sean Lee, Jared Odrick, Nate Stupar, and Jack Crawford all went on to have NFL careers.
Surprisingly, this 2016 team was quite similar to that 2009 team. Rushing success was quite similar:
- In 2009 the team rushed for 2,207 yards. Evan Royster (did you know he played lacrosse?) led the team with 1,169 yards. The team averaged 4.73 ypc.
- In 2016, Saquon Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards of the team's total 2,406 yards. The team averaged 4.46 ypc.
Quarterback play was better in 2016:
- In 2009, Daryll Clark threw for 3,003 yards, with 24 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He had a 231 yard per game average and a QB rating of 142.
- This year Trace McSorley threw for 3,614 yards (with one more game). He had 29 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. He averaged 258 yards per game with a rating of 157.
The big difference between 2009 and 2016 was the defense.
- In 2009, we held opponents to 2,400 yards passing (185 ypg) and 1,168 yards rushing (90 ypg)
- In 2016, we held opponents to 3,033 yards passing (217 ypg) and 2,118 yards rushing (151 ypg)
In the end, that weakness on defense led to the final loss of the year.
The surprising thing about this team was its second half play. Attribute it to adjustments, to conditioning, to whatever...this team was just better in the second half of its games. They were the best road team in the country in the second half and fourth quarters. That made every game watchable. It made harrowing deficits in the first half of games less uncomfortable.
And damn it was fun to watch...
Damn there are so many highlights from this year.
Let's just get this out of the way...
My personal favorite was the rally from down 28-7 to beat Wisconsin in the B1G Championship game. Speth started flaming PSU after Corey Clement ripped off a 67 yard run for a big score...and then shit went south.
The defense really had some big plays when we needed them. Remember Wisconsin had the ball with a minute left, down by 7. It's fourth and one. They hand the ball off to Clement who had been steady Eddie...and he gets stuffed. PSU runs out the clock for the win.
Another huge defensive play came at the end of the OSU game. Everybody points to that blocked kick as the game winner...but it wasn't. The Buckeyes got the ball back with 4 ½ minutes left in regulation, down by 3 points. That shouldn't be a problem for them. Touchdown wins, field goal ties the game.
What happened was the defensive stand of the season. The drive stalled. Barrett took back to back sacks on third and fourth down...no field goal...PSU wins. That was a huge game. It was a huge confidence builder for this team. Down 21-7 in the third quarter, they came back to win.
Comeback wins matter to the psyche of teams. Nothing builds confidence like it. You know you can win, so you do. That was the mojo this team built up as the season went on. Down 14 points going into the fourth quarter? No problem...
But that wasn't always the case.
The early part of the season sucked. Obviously the Michigan game was the lowlight of the year. There is no facet of that game worth exploring. Harbaugh came prepared. They held Barkley to 59 yards on 15 carries. McSorley looked pedestrian, throwing for 121 yards a TD and a pick. Four different Michigan running backs had touchdown runs...brutal.
The other lowlight was the Pitt game. Asshats come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. But Pitt fans are a unique brand of Asshat. Get fucked you posers. Especially Tony Dorsett.
Finally, the end of the Rose Bowl game was a disappointment. While you can point fingers at McSorley for this ill-fated YOLO armpunt at the end, I put that blame on the coaches. Up 49 to 35, we had the ball four times in the fourth quarter...
- 3 plays - fumble
- 3 plays - punt
- 5 plays - punt
- 3 plays - INT
Final score was 52 to 49 in favor of USC. That was a winnable game. It shouldn't have come down to a last-minute prayer from McSorley to Godwin. I put that one squarely on Franklin and Moorehead.
I don't have a great feel for 2017 yet. There will be improvements for sure...but some let downs too.
I think the offense will get better. This was the first year for this offensive system (!), so another year will bring more experience. Most of the starters return, which is great news for the offensive line. Next year we will have our best line in over 5 years...it will be one of the most talented groups to play for us in years.
While we lose Chris Godwin to the NFL, the trio of McSorley, Barkley, and tight end Mike Gesicki all return. Standout recievers Daesean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall return as well. Some incredibly talented youngsters join them. The "Twin Towers" of Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles will be wideouts to watch. They are both 6' 4" giants who were redshirt freshmen in 2016.
My prediction is points galore in 2017 for this offense. This will be a fun squad to watch next year. It's such a rare thing to have a prolific offense at Penn State. I like it.
On the other hand, the defense could be the same...and that's not good. This is a team that let USC manhandle them. They made Sam Darnold look like a Heisman candidate. He went 33 of 53 for 453 yards(!), five touchdown passes, and a pick.
The rushing defense was better, holding USC to just 122 yards on 34 carries...but there's the problem. We lose many of our best players from the front seven. Expect to see a bunch of new names on the defensive line.
Names to watch for next year include Kevin Givens and Shaka Toney. Givens had a great season as a RS freshman this year. He's got that "it" factor. You haven't seen Toney yet, as he redshirted. The kid won the Scout Team defensive player of the year award. The 6'3" former 3 star looks big and fast. He'll be in the mix at defensive end.
My real concern in 2017, as it was all this season, is linebacker play.
This position is a big part of our brand of football. Look around the NFL, you'll see former PSU linebackers in starting roles...heading to the Pro-bowl. It's a point of pride. This year looked promising, with two seniors standing tall: Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White.
White is a prototypical PSU linebacker. He's 6'1", 240 pounds and hits like a Mac Truck. He had an outstanding young career, starting 20 games as a freshman and sophomore. But he tore his ACL in 2015 in the opening game against Temple. He managed to play three games in 2016, before another knee injury ended his career.
Without NWW in the lineup, Brandon Bell took up a lot of slack, but he was hurt in the Pitt game and missed the next four: Temple, Michigan, Minnesota, and Maryland. Even missing four games, he was second on the team in tackles (89), with 7.5 for loss, 2 picks, and three forced fumbles.
With NWW and Brandon Bell graduated, the role players from 2016 step up. Manny Bowen, Jason Cabinda, Koa Farmer, Brandon Smith, and Cam Brown will all play roles next year. The top four players in this group had plenty of experience, but can get better. Depth is an issue as well.
The secondary returns nearly everyone. It should be one of the best in the B1G. Marcus Allen, Nick Scott, and Troy Apke all saw work at Safety this year. Allen led the team in tackles with 110.
We also bring back a very experienced cornerback squad, with John Reid, Grant Haley, Christian Campbell, and Amani Oruwayie.
The watchword for 2017's Penn State squad is: Shoot out. This offense can score points quickly and in bunches. It will fall on the defense to stop other teams from doing the same. If they can do it, we'll have another double digit win season.