Preview 2017: Penn State Nittany Lions
Previewing and looking ahead at the Penn State Nittany Lions season – and what you need to know.
What You Need To Know About The Penn State Offense
As James Franklin’s offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead turned out to be just what the team needed. That, and better blocking and more playmaking in the clutch.
Moorhead cranked up big-time offenses as the Fordham head coach, and he showed just how dangerous Penn State could be after taking over as the O. With nine starters returning from an offense that finished 14th in the nation in passing efficiency, and was magical time and again in the fourth quarter, the attack should be unstoppable.
The one big massive loss is WR Chris Godwin, the deep threat who turned into a devastating playmaker time and again. However, everyone else who caught a pass returns, including All-Big Ten caliber TE Mike Gesicki.
Getting to bomb away to the veteran receiving corps is Trace McSorley, who might have been a bit erratic at times, and sometimes needed a few quarters to warm up, but managed to throw for over 3,600 yards with 29 touchdown passes and eight interceptions in an All-Big Ten season.
As good as the passing game should be, the offense works around Saquon Barkley, one of the nation’s top do-it-all backs who exploded when healthy, but only hit the 100-yard mark five times. He’ll work behind a veteran line that gets back four starters after allowing just 24 sacks after giving up 83 over the last two years.
Biggest Key To The Penn State Offense
Score early by getting Barkley going right away. Late comebacks are fun and exciting, but Penn State’s offense played with fire way too often. McSorley was wonderful once he heated up, but it would be nice to score more than 68 points in the first quarter.
It took too long to get everything to go.
The passing game might be fantastic, but this is a whole different team when Barkley gets rolling. He might have been banged up late in the regular season, but he was stuffed by Michigan for 59 yards on 15 carries, and was stopped by Michigan State for 14 yards on 12 carries. Again, if he’s not hurt, he’s got 2,000-yard potential. Get him rolling in the first quarter, take the pressure off of everything else, and there won’t be as much scrambling.
What You Need To Know About The Penn State Defense
It was solid. The D wasn’t the killer of the last few years – finishing second overall in the nation in 2014, and 14th in 2015 – but it was good enough.
At least it was good enough when Sam Darnold wasn’t being Sam Darnold.
Seven starters return with eight of the top 11 tacklers back, but the pass rush needs new playmakers with Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan gone off the ends. There’s no real concern, and the tackles are excellent, but the faster the new DEs can rise up, the better.
The secondary is going to be terrific, with fantastic speed on the corners and a big-time hitter at safety in Marcus Allen to work around. If the pass rush is okay, the defensive backs could grow into the team’s biggest strength.
The linebacking corps loses Brandon Bell, but it’s a great group that’ll get stronger with several good young players in the rotation. This might not be a Linebacking U. caliber unit, but it’s going to be more than good enough against the run.
Biggest Key To The Penn State Defense
Is it really as easy as generating a pass rush each and every week? The Penn State defense was outstanding at getting behind the line with 40 sacks on the year with a whopping 114 tackles for loss. A momentum defense on a momentum team, as games went on, the group tended to get better and more disruptive.
However, even with all of the big plays from the defensive front – including six sacks against Ohio State – there was just one sack in the Rose Bowl. In the two other losses? Zero sacks against Michigan, zero sacks against Pitt. The blowout win over Purdue was the only other game the Nittany Lions didn’t generate at least two sacks.
For what it’s worth, going back to 2010, Penn State is 0-7 when failing to come up with a sack.
Penn State Will Be Far Better If …
The offense can convert more third down chances. Of course, the real key is to start out hot to there won’t need to be so many big comebacks late – the Nittany Lions scored 98 more points in the fourth quarter than the first. But to get out to a better start means doing a better job of moving the chains.
The Nittany Lions didn’t hold the ball for long – getting dominated in time of possession again and again – and that has to change by going on a few long marches. The big deep plays are nice, and points are points are points, but the offense only converted 33% of its third down chances. That’s nothing new – it converted a mere 28% of the time two years ago. Hitting on 30% of the tries or fewer in seven games isn’t okay for a team with so much offensive talent.
Best Penn State Offensive Player
RB Saquon Barkley, Jr. – You know how Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey skipped their respective bowl games to make sure they’d be as healthy as possible for the NFL Draft? Yeah, add Barkley to the list of Shouldn’t Play One More Down Of College Football Than They Absolutely Have To guys.
He’s what the pros want – a 5-11, 223-pound quick athlete who ran for close to 1,500 yards and 18 scores, caught 28 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns, and a spark plug and a workhorse when needed. Fresh after getting a little time off, he showed off his greatness in the Rose Bowl with 194 yards and two scores against USC. Expect a whole lot more of that.
2. QB Trace McSorley, Jr.
3. TE Mike Gesicki, Sr.
4. OT Ryan Bates, Soph.
5. C Connor McGovern, Soph.
Best Penn State Defensive Player
S Marcus Allen, Sr. – it took a little while to go from good to special, but now the 6-2, 202-pounder is one of the Big Ten’s best-hitting defensive backs with the presence to be a rock against the run. While he didn’t do too much when the ball was in the air, he led the team with 110 tackles – highlighted by a 22-stop game against Minnesota and 11 in the Big Ten Championship win over Wisconsin.
But now he has to come up with a few picks. He might have 249 career tackles, but there aren’t any interceptions – that’s the only real knick from the pro scouting types.
2. LB Jason Cabinda, Sr.
3. CB John Reid, Jr.
4. LB Brandon Smith, Sr.
5. LB Manny Bowen, Jr.
Key Player To A Successful Season
WR DaeSean Hamilton, Sr. – Can the 82-catch guy from his freshman year return? Chris Godwin turned into the dangerous deep threat for the offense over the last few years, but Hamilton is the seasoned veteran who moved around a bit to find a home in the slot.
He might not be the team’s most dynamic receiver, but he’s the veteran who’ll be the go-to guy on key plays. Others will have better yard-per-catch averages, and there are more talented receivers on the roster, but watch out for Hamilton to come up with the big catches in the clutch.
The Penn State Season Will Be A Success If …
It wins the East again. Michigan has to replace just about everyone, and it has to come to Happy Valley. There’s no Wisconsin on the schedule, and while going to Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State won’t be easy, they should be manageable games for a team dreaming of winning the Big Ten title.
There’s enough talent and experience returning to do it all again, and it might not take as many fourth quarter miracles and magic. There’s a shot at being every bit as good with even more talented young players ready to make a splash. But to do it, there can’t be any home misfires, and there probably has to be another win over …
Key Game To The Penn State Season
Oct. 28 at Ohio State – Penn State had lost four in a row to the Buckeyes before coming up with one of the wildest finishes of the season. The 24-21 victory – eventually – led the way to an East title and the Big Ten championship.
Of course, it didn’t really matter – Ohio State got to the CFP anyway, and Penn State didn’t – but it was still the moment when the program really and truly seemed like it was back among the elite. ßBeating Wisconsin for the B1G might’ve been a big deal, but taking down the Buckeyes? That became the biggest moment in James Franklin’s coaching career.. Now do it again.
2016 Penn State Fun Stats
– 1st Quarter Scoring: 68 – 4th Quarter Scoring: 166
– Penalties: Opponents 101 for 884 yards – Penn State 68 for 622 yards
– Sacks: Penn State 40 for 270 yards – Opponents 24 for 161 yards