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SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #5 Penn State

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State came out of nowhere last year to win the Big Ten. Is 2017 the year they win it all?

The college football season is rapidly approaching, and as the hunger for the upcoming season gets stronger, we’ve got something here at SQ that will hold your appetite for the time being. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be rolling out previews of the teams in our top-25. We last checked in with #6 Oklahoma. Today, we continue our countdown with #5 Penn State.

Team Name: Penn State Nittany Lions

Rank: 5

2016 Record: 11-3

Finish in AP Poll: 7

Coach: James Franklin (25-15, fourth year)

Key Arrivals: CB Lamont Wade, OG CJ Thorpe, QB Sean Clifford, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, DT Fred Hansard, S Jonathan Sutherland, LB Ellis Brooks

Key Departures: WR Chris Godwin, OLB Brandon Bell, S Malik Golden, DE Garrett Sickels, DE Evan Schwan

Previewing Penn State’s Offense

The Penn State offense was a bit puzzling last season. It produced a lot of explosive plays, churning out 91 plays of 20+ yards. However, it ran into a lot of negative plays as well, with opponents stopping Penn State players in the backfield 89 times in 2016. On top of that, the run game suffered a stuff-rate — the percentage of runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage — of 23.9%, which ranked 119th in the nation. This is in part due to the running style of Saquon Barkley along with sub-par offensive line performance.

Barkley is indeed one of the best rushers in the country, but often tried to turn nothing into something last season, and earned no yards or negative yards on 23.2% of his carries last season. His explosiveness is a key part to this offense this season, but the junior Heisman contender is going to be a little more patient and take what the offensive line gives him. If he can do that, he has a chance to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark this season after falling about 500 yards short in 2016.

Now in his second season as offensive line coach, Matt Limegrover will hopefully be able to build upon a forgettable 2016. Marred by injuries, the Penn State offensive line was a continuous revolving door with nine different linemen starting at least three games last season. However, if this line is healthy, it should much improved with the experience gained from last season as well as the size (average of 6‘5, 320 pounds) that it brings.

Trace McSorley was one of the best passers in the Big Ten in 2016, leading the conference in passing yards (3,614), yards per attempt (9.3), touchdowns (29), and passer rating (156.93). McSorley earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, using both his arm and his legs to do so. The junior’s ability to escape pressure when the line breaks down makes him a dangerous threat. He’s not exactly a great runner, averaging 4.3 yards (non-sack) per carry, but he does a great job of improvising when the play is broken. 

Losing top receiver Chris Godwin to the NFL shouldn’t hurt too bad, as DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins both showed they have big play potential by averaging 14.9 and 16.3 yards per catch, respectively. McSorley’s most reliable target will be tight end Mike Gesicki. Gesicki was the second-most targeted Penn State receiver last season, catching 67.6% of the passes thrown his way. 

Previewing Penn State’s Defense

Penn State didn’t lose often, but when it did, the defense was a big part of the reason why. In the three losses suffered by the Nitanny Lions last season, the defense gave up 48 points per game and 6.3 yards per play. However, if you take out the three losses, Penn State all of a sudden becomes a top-15 defense. In its 11 wins, the defense gave up an average of 19.4 points per game along with just 4.7 yards per play. 

Going into 2017, Penn State has a lot of experience returning, but its losses will still be felt. For one, the pass rush lost its most productive players in ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Shwan, who combined for 21 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in 2016. That leaves junior Torrence Brown (six tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks) as the team’s most experienced pass rusher, meaning that sophomores Shareef Miller and Ryan Bucholz (combined for 10 tackles for loss and five sacks) will have to step up.

Despite losing linebacker Brandon Bell (88 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss), Penn State should remain relatively strong in this area. Jason Cabinda is a big reason why, finishing 2016 with 81 tackles despite missing five games. In addition, this unit finished 29th in the nation in havoc rate (percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass), creating havoc on 5.4% of plays compared to the national average of 4.3%. In other words, this group is going to cause problems for opposing offenses on multiple fronts, whether it’s by getting to the quarterback or dropping back to defend the pass. 

When you look at the secondary, Penn State not only lost safety Malik Golden to graduation, but also suffered an unexpected loss when corner John Reid tore his ACL in spring camp. Replacing two key starters is not exactly easy, but the Nittany Lions may have the pieces to do it. Christian Campbell and Grant Haley should be able to do the job at corner after combining for 70 tackles and 10 pass breakups.

Having Marcus Allen return for his senior season is huge after he led the team with 110 tackles, coming up with six tackles for loss and three pass breakups. Senior Troy Apke will likely fill the spot vacated by Golden after coming up with 28 tackles and an interception in a reserve roll last season.

Three Key Games

1. Oct. 21 vs. Michigan - Getting a week off to prepare for this game should come in handy after Penn State was embarrassed in this matchup a year ago. However, the Nittany Lions were laden with injuries at the point in the season, not quite able to find the right mix on defense. If James Franklin’s team is healthy in this year’s contest, Penn State could be the team that embarrasses Jim Harbaugh’s young Wolverines. Getting this game at home is huge for the Nittany Lions in a year where they could push for a national title.

2. Oct. 28 at Ohio State - Who could forget last year’s ending to this game? A couple big plays from Barkley and McSorley early in the fourth quarter brought Penn State to within one score of the Buckeyes’ lead, and then the unthinkable happened. Marcus Allen blocked an Ohio State field goal with under five minutes left, and Grant Haley picked it up and returned it for a touchdown. There was bedlam in Happy Valley. This season, both teams are loaded once more, making this matchup one of the most anticipated games of the year. McSorley struggled for much of the game last season and will need to be more efficient against this stingy defense. Traveling to Columbus won’t make this game any easier.

3. Nov. 18 vs. Nebraska - This matchup is sort of an under-the-radar type of game with the lack of hype surrounding Nebraska. However, this game is important from the standpoint that Penn State hasn’t beaten the Cornhuskers since they joined the Big Ten in 2011. Nebraska will likely be fighting for the top spot in the Big Ten West, meaning that this game could even be an early preview of the Big Ten Championship. With Nebraska hiring Bob Diaco as its new defensive coordinator, the Cornhuskers defense could prove to be a bigger factor than it would’ve been a year ago.

Final Analysis

Penn State is going to have a shot at winning the national title this year. How big or small their chances are depends on the health of this team. Last season showed just how much injuries can hamper this team, with ugly losses to Pitt and Michigan early on. But we also saw how great this team can be when it’s at full health. James Franklin has Penn State in prime position to contend for another Big Ten title, but it’s not going to be easy. Even if the injuries stay away, going to Columbus late in the year will make repeating as division champs that much harder.

With that being said, even if Penn State misses out on a College Football Playoff spot or even a Big Ten title, this team is going to be one of the more entertaining ones to watch in all of college football. The offense alone will make jaws drop with the explosiveness that Barkley runs with, along with McSorley’s big arm and ability to escape pressure. On defense, Allen may be the only recognizable name, but there is a lot of young talent ready to break out. Look for James Franklin to continue Penn State’s upward trajectory, bringing it back to the forefront of college football.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.

Who holds the Penn State career passing yards record with 8,457?
Created 8/20/17
  1. Christian Hackenberg
  2. Matt McGloin
  3. Kerry Collins
  4. Trace McSorley

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