One year ago, if you said that James Franklin would still be the head coach at Penn State in 2017, that would be considered an optimistic outlook. This year, we’re talking about a College Football Playoff contender. Penn State fans believe that their team has made the leap from also-ran to one of the big boys, but I suppose there are still some sticks in the mud that think last year might have been a fluke. I’ll let the players do the talking on the field, but here’s what you should know when discussing the Nittany Lions from now until September.
About Last Season
2016 was billed as a make-or-break campaign for Franklin, and at the end of the first month, the “break” outcome looked a lot more likely. Although it managed to avoid losing to Kent State and Temple, Penn State dropped a heartbreaker at Pitt and was demolished by Michigan in one of the most pathetic defensive displays we’ve ever seen from the program. At 2-2, Franklin’s future appeared to hinge on two upcoming home games against Minnesota and Maryland.
It’s funny to think about now, but Penn State probably should have lost to Minnesota. The Lions overcame a 13-3 halftime deficit but still found themselves trailing by three with less than a minute to go. If only we knew then that Franklin had a pair of 2017 Heisman Trophy hopefuls on the field, it wouldn’t have come as a pleasant surprise when Trace McSorley scrambled to set up the game-tying field goal and Saquon Barkley sent the fans home happy with a spectacular overtime touchdown run.
After a relatively easy win over Maryland, the Lions had their backs against the wall again with Ohio State in town, but Beaver Stadium would turn magical once again. With less than five minutes remaining, Marcus Allen blocked an Ohio State field goal try and Grant Haley took it to the house to give Penn State a 24-21 lead that it would improbably hold until the clock hit zero. James Franklin got a big win, the defense got its mojo back, and the Lions were back in the national spotlight (but for a good reason this time).
The scoreboard will tell you that Penn State cruised into the Big Ten Championship Game from that point forward, but it is worth mentioning that Indiana completely shut down Barkley and led by 10 points in the third quarter before McSorley and the defense led the Lions to a two-touchdown win. There were also first-half hiccups against Purdue and Michigan State, but those games got so out of control in the second half that they might as well have been blowouts from the start.
Slow starts and strong finishes continued to be the story for Penn State against Wisconsin in Indianapolis. The Lions fell behind 28-7 in the first half only to outscore their opponents 24-3 after halftime to earn the program’s first outright Big Ten title since 1994. A month later at the Rose Bowl, Penn State tried to follow a similar script by falling behind USC 20-7 before ripping off touchdowns on seven consecutive possessions to take a 49-35 lead into the final quarter. As successful as Franklin’s boom-or-bust offense was that day, it couldn’t keep the ball away from Trojan quarterback Sam Darnold with the game on the line, and USC rallied for a dramatic 52-49 victory to end Penn State’s incredible campaign on a sour note.
As Bill Connelly’s advanced stats profile will tell you, Penn State was one of the most explosive offenses in Division I last year, but it also ranked 80th in efficiency. Fans who watched the games can tell you a similar story: While the Lions were capable of scoring at any time and from anywhere on the field in 2016, they also tended to frustrate with three-and-outs.
Barkley is widely seen as the best player on Penn State’s offense, but the rushing game last year was one of the worst in the country at success rate (i.e.: the frequency at which a team gains an acceptable amount of yards that varies depending on the down and distance). In other words, Barkley was awesome at making the highlight reel, but decidedly not awesome at keeping the chains moving. Part of that is due to the star tailback trying to breaks runs outside too often instead of following his blocks and part of it is the offensive line not blocking well, but both factors have to improve if Barkley is going to make his Heisman hype a reality.
The passing game will similarly have to wean itself off of big-play reliance if the Lions are to repeat as Big Ten champs. As a first-year starter in 2016, McSorley often looked like he was chucking the ball in the air and hoping one of his talented targets would run under the ball... even if you’d rather he look for something underneath on 3rd-and-4. The good news is that when the young quarterback looked the safety off, he often came up a winner, throwing for 9.34 yards per attempt despite completing 58 percent of his passes. However, later in the season McSorley learned to pick his spots better and completed passes long and short alike with frightening efficiency in his final three games against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and USC while totaling 12 touchdowns and 1,014 yards.
While some Penn State fans may be expecting even more explosive plays in 2017, that is unlikely. On the other hand, we could see a better overall unit due to all the returning talent. In fact, the only major contributor not coming back is wide receiver Chris Godwin, who led the Lions with 59 catches, 982 receiving yards, and 11 receiving touchdowns in 2016. No other wide receiver last year had more than 34 receptions, but look for one of DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins, or Saeed Blacknall to step up and become McSorley’s new favorite target. If that doesn’t happen, we could see tight end Mike Gesicki lead the team in receiving this season. While that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, I’d rather see the big target become a possession receiver that Penn State desperately needs instead of continuing to be another downfield threat.
Considering how poorly the rush defense performed against Pitt and Michigan last September, it’s pretty amazing that the unit settled down and finished the season ranked 26th nationally in S&P+ against the run. You can credit a lot of the improvement to star linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda returning from injury before the Ohio State game, but role players like Manny Bowen and Brandon Smith also got better while gaining valuable experience. With Bell moving on to the NFL, Cabinda along with safety Marcus Allen will spearhead Penn State’s battle against a conference that loves to run the ball.
There are bigger questions in pass defense, where cornerback John Reid could miss the entire campaign due to a knee injury. The other projected starter Grant Haley should pick up some of the slack, but we still don’t know if it will be Christian Campbell, Amani Oruwariye, or talented freshman Lamont Wade playing in Reid’s stead.
The pass rush will also need to replace some talent, as last year’s sack leaders Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan both departed after 2016. Shareef Miller and Torrence Brown are the projected starters at defensive end, but 2016 top recruit Shane Simmons could play a big role after redshirting his freshman year.
Although there wasn’t a lot of stress on Penn State’s pass defense last year, it didn’t perform too well when tested by Indiana, Wisconsin, and USC towards the end of the campaign. With all the turnover at defensive end and secondary, opponents might be more willing to take to the air in 2017.
The Special Teams
The big star of Penn State special teams last year was Joey Julius, who gained fans across the country due to his big hits on kickoff returners as well as his unconventional body type. Julius’s status as a kickoff specialist is up in the air this season due to his battle with an eating disorder, but placekicker Tyler Davis and punter Blake Gillikin are both returning after successful 2016 campaigns. Davis in particular was excellent, connecting on 22 of 24 field goal attempts in addition to all 62 extra points.
On the Schedule
|September 2||vs. Akron|
|September 9||vs. Pittsburgh|
|September 16||vs. Georgia State|
|September 23||at Iowa|
|September 30||vs. Indiana|
|October 7||at Northwestern|
|October 21||vs. Michigan|
|October 28||at Ohio State|
|November 4||at Michigan State|
|November 11||vs. Rutgers|
|November 18||vs. Nebraska|
|November 25||at Maryland|
Although the Nittany Lions play five road games in the Big Ten this season, they make up for it by hosting Pitt instead of travelling out to Heinz Field like they did last year. That, in addition to the Michigan home game, gives Penn State a decent chance at revenge for both of its 2016 regular season losses, but there’s still a road trip to Columbus to worry about. That Ohio State game might be the only time the Lions are underdogs all year.
When talking to a Penn State fan...
Do mention: The blocked field goal against Ohio State, Barkley’s Heisman chances, the improving offensive line, Grilled Stickies
Don’t mention: Penn State’s record in Columbus, how many times Barkley ran for 100 yards last year, the offense’s reliance on the big play in 2016