James Franklin‘s Fourth Season
Tested First Season
Going into James Franklin’s fourth season at the helm, there has been a steady increase in production since 2015. The Nittany Lions ended the 2015 season 7-6, with a 24-17 loss to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
The end of the 2015 season gave the Nittany Lion faithful a glimpse into both running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley. Barkley broke the Penn State freshman season rushing record in a loss to Michigan State. McSorely entered the TaxSlayer Bowl and threw for 142 yards and two touchdowns.
No Sophomore Slump Here
The 2016 campaign gave fans near heart attacks week in and week out. By the end, the Nittany Lions had a record of 11-3. Penn State showed the country that the heart, determination, and will to win had never left Happy Valley.
A decisive 33-13 victory over Kent State started the 2016 season. In week two, injuries plagued an already short-handed defense. On the road against in-state rival Pitt, the Nittany Lions were handed a 42-39 loss. Penn State bounced back, winning 10 of their next 11 games. One of those wins was a thriller against number two Ohio State in week seven. The win against Ohio State catapulted the Nittany Lions into the top 10 and into national conversation. This win allowed fans to almost forget a thrashing at Michigan in week four.
The Nittany Lions had another thrilling win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship. This awarded the boys in basic blues a trip to the “Grand Daddy of them All” against USC in Pasadena. The Nittany Lions lost in heartbreaking fashion, 52-49. In spite of this, the 2017 Rose Bowl propelled Barkley and McSorley into the conversation to win the 2018 Heisman Trophy. Barkley had 249 total rushing and receiving yards and three touchdowns. McSorley passed for 254 yards and four touchdowns.
Fourth Year Veteran
James Franklin’s fourth season starts with a home game against Akron on September 2nd in Beaver Stadium. The last time the Nittany Lions played Akron was in 2015. They won 21-3 and had 425 total yards of offense in Franklin’s first season with the team. Expect the air and ground combination of Barkley a\nd McSorley to be too much for a Zips defense that is replacing most of the backfield. A decisive win over the Zips will result to start the season.
The 2016 season’s greatest addition was, arguably, Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead. The offense under Moorhead scored a total of 526 points in the 2016 season for a total of 66 touchdowns, up from 301 total points and 36 touchdowns in 2015. The near doubling of touchdowns scored in the 2016 season is a testament to the confidence that Moorhead has in his offense and the trust that they put in him. The Nittany Lion faithful is expected to scream “Tuddies!” a lot this season.
Strength at O-Line?
Penn State will hopefully have an improved offensive line under Matt Limegrover. In addition to redshirt freshman Will Fries, an athletic tackle, the Nittany Lions are returning five starters on the offensive line. There is also a depth of players that had significant playing time in the 2016 season. Furthermore, the veteran leadership of Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson are both coming back from injury. Ryan Bates and Chasz Wright, who became a bright spot in a rash of injuries last season should also play a large role. Overall, the Nittany Lions could finally see the o-line as a strength rather than a hindrance.
Barkley, McSorley, Gesicki…Oh my!
Saquon Barkley is a beast and slated as one of the best, if not the best, running back in the country. The junior Heisman-hopeful turned heads in the Rose Bowl after an elusive 79-yard run where his athleticism allowed him to break six tackles on his way to the end zone. Not only is he fast, with a 4.33-second 40 yard dash, but his vertical jump adds a new dimension to his game. In June, he broke a state lifting record with a 405 lb. power clean. His strength mixed with his athleticism allows him to catapult over defenders and make them miss. Expect Barkley to put up big numbers.
The other side of the offensive threat duo is redshirt junior quarterback Trace McSorley. McSorley passed for 254 yards and four touchdowns against a firm USC Trojan defense in the Rose Bowl. In order to improve off a 3,614 yard passing season, McSorley will have to rely heavily on a talented wide receiver corps headed by DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall and returning tight end Mike Gesicki. Gesicki is a 6 foot 6 inch tight end that really burst onto the scene last season with five touchdowns on 679 total yards. Gesicki should start where he left off and be a big target for McSorley.
The Nittany Lion defense is returning seven starters and a handful of players that saw extensive playing time last season due to injuries. They are going to be young, but in good shape.
Rise Up, Stay Successful
Injuries and loss to the NFL will require players to step up on defense. Losing starting cornerback John Reid to injury will require Christian Campbell to play a big role. The NFL acquires both starting defensive ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, outside linebacker Brandon Bell, and safety Malik Golden. This normally means rebuilding, but with injuries last season, that is not the case. The Nittany Lions are especially strong at defensive tackle, where they return five players with double-digit tackles last season. The depth at linebacker is spearheaded by madman Jason Cabinda, which is more than enough to deserve the name Linebacker U.
The favorable should-win Akron and Georgia State will help the Nittany Lions get in a rhythm before entering full swing into a notoriously tough Big Ten East. Rematches against Pitt and Michigan at home will provide a loud crowd in Beaver Stadium.
Pittsburgh (Week 2): A rematch against in-state rival, Pitt, at home will be a good start to the season for the Nittany Lions. The 2016 game in Pittsburgh was tough fought by a Nittany Lion defense that was riddled with injuries. The suspension of safety Jordan Whitehead and defensive end Rori Blair is a big blow for the Panthers. With a healthy Penn State defense, an emerging o-line and playing in Beaver Stadium the Nittany Lions should win this one.
Michigan (Week 7): The next big test the Nittany Lions will face is Michigan in week 7. The Wolverines dismantled the Nittany Lions in a road loss last season. This game will be much more interesting than the 2016 game in Ann Arbor if Penn can stay healthy. A home crowd will be amped to have the Wolverines come into Beaver Stadium for some revenge. Expect a game that will come down to the wire, but a notch in the win column for the Nittany Lions.
Ohio State (Week 8): Week 8 brings the first real road test for the Nittany Lions in the 2017 season. Away games up to this point will be against Iowa and Northwestern which shouldn’t be too much to handle for Saquon Barkley and company. Quarterback JT Barrett, a veteran o-line and a defense that hasn’t lost anyone outside of the secondary all return. Barrett has a new offensive coordinator this season, which makes the passing game a mystery. McSorley must take advantage of a production-lacking Buckeye secondary by utilizing the deep receiving corps. While the Nittany Lions might have a shot at pulling out a win in the Shoe, anticipate a loss here.
Nebraska (Week 11): The final test will be at home against a historically strong Nebraska team. The Cornhuskers have a transfer from Tulane at QB, Taylor Lee. Nebraska also lost 67% of its touchdown production to graduation. Furthermore, the Cornhusker defense has a new defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, at the helm. It will be interesting to see his plan to combat Barkley and McSorley. Look for a decisive win to close out the home schedule.
James Franklin’s fourth season must show that last season was not a fluke and Penn State is relevant again. Also, the Nittany Lions must keep the 2018 recruiting class intact. To do so, they will have to continue to win the difficult match-ups. Close, hard-fought games have come to be expected in Happy Valley. Much to the Nittany Lion faithful’s dismay, don’t count on James Franklin’s fourth season being any different.
The bulk of the must-win games are at home. Season tickets have sold out and the student section is truthfully ranked as the best in the nation again. Therefore, with help from the fans the Nittany Lions may be a two-loss team going into the postseason for the third straight year.