Penn State Football Season Preview/Predictions
Penn State has underwhelmed in its first two seasons of the James Franklin era. Now entering his third season as head coach, Franklin and the Nittany Lions will be looking to take the next step forward in the rebuilding process after coming off 7-6 records in each of its last two seasons, including a dismal 0-6 record against the three current Big Ten powerhouses: Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. This season Franklin turns play-calling duties over to former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead, who will look to provide a spark for an offense that has struggled mightily the past two seasons. Penn State had faced a cap of 65 scholarships starting in 2014 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, but will finally be back to the full allotment of 85 scholarship players on the roster this season. This team returns a lot of talent and could be poised for a breakout year with drastically improved depth on the roster.
Previewing the Offense
Although the Nittany Lions return numerous key players on the offensive side of the ball, this unit’s identity will be quite different this season. Joe Moorhead will take over an offense that finished 105th in the nation in total yards, 105th in rushing, and 101st in scoring last season. Moorhead will implement a fast-paced spread offense that he utilized very effectively in his four years at Fordham, and he has plenty of talent to work with in his first year. The Lions return last season’s leading rusher, Saquon Barkley, who totaled 1,076 yards on the ground in 11 appearances as a true freshman, including a 194 yard outburst against Ohio State. Barkley put up impressive numbers despite playing behind a very poor offensive line, and he could easily emerge as one of the elite running backs in college football by the end of the year. Penn State also adds five-star true freshman running back Miles Sanders out of Pittsburgh. Sanders is listed as the fourth running back on the depth chart as of now, but he’s an exceptionally talented young back who should see increased time as the year progresses. With all-time leading passer Christian Hackenberg off to the NFL, all eyes turn to redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley, who was officially named the starting quarterback last week. While McSorley doesn’t possess the arm talent of his predecessor, he showed plenty of promise in last year’s Tax Slayer bowl game against Georgia, and in the Blue-White game in April. McSorley also adds more mobility to the offense, a dimension Hackenberg never provided. He is supplemented by a plethora of talented receivers that includes junior Chris Godwin, who was second in the Big Ten in receiving yards last season with 1,101. One of the top receiving corps in the Big Ten also returns juniors DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall, while junior tight-end Mike Gesicki is poised for a breakout year. The biggest question will be if the offensive line can give McSorley the time needed to get the ball to these playmakers. However, with more experience up front and a full allotment of scholarships to work with, the o-line should be much improved from a year ago. The talent is there and if the line can manifest improvement from a year ago, Penn State could boast one of the most formidable offenses in the conference.
Previewing the Defense
The defense last season was spectacular once again considering the little help it got from the offense. With last year’s defensive coordinator Bob Shoop off to Tennessee, it is now up to former linebacker coach Brent Pry to uphold the steadiness that this defense has consistently shown. The Nittany Lions will have the tough task of replacing a dominant defensive front from a year ago that included the nation’s sack leader in Carl Nassib and all conference tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. Strong side defensive-end Garrett Sickels is the lone returning starter from last year’s d-line, while Kevin Givens and Parker Cothren will take over the tackle spots. Jason Cabinda leads a solid linebacker unit that could blossom into a very good group by mid-season. Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman White, who is coming off a season ending knee injury in last season’s opener against Temple, will start along side him. As long as this unit can stay on the field, the linebackers could be a major strength for the defense. A dependable secondary that ranked eighth in the nation against the pass last season returns three veterans in safeties Marcus Allen and Malik Golden, as well as cornerback Grant Haley. John Reid, who made a terrific impact as a freshman, will start opposite of Haley. This group has the talent to be a one of the premier secondaries in the Big Ten for the second year in a row. One priority will be to create more turnovers as the Penn State secondary intercepted only six passes last year. If the Nittany Lions can adequately replace the d-line and avoid an early barrage of injuries, it should be another successful year on this side of the ball in Happy Valley.
Kickers Joey Julius and Tyler Davis combined to go 18/20 on field goals last season but much of that was a byproduct of poor red-zone efficiency on offense. Julius started last season as the top kicker but began to struggle mid way later in the year (four missed extra points) and kicking duties were delegated to Davis. It also didn’t help that the Lions inability to move the ball down the field was combined with a poor punting. This summer the Lions signed Blake Gillikin, the second ranked high school punter in the country, who should immediately provide a considerable upgrade in this department.
James Franklin hasn’t had the easiest transition to Penn State, but the effects of the sanctions are beginning to diminish. In his first year with a full allocation of scholarships and enhanced overall depth on the roster, this could be the year the Nittany Lions begin to turn things around. Franklin is also coming off of a third straight year of finishing in the top twenty five in recruiting, so there is plenty of reason for optimism. With a very manageable non-conference schedule and home games against Ohio State and Michigan State, I look for Penn State to finish 9-3 in the regular season with a possible upset win over one of the three Big Ten powers. This team is undoubtedly trending upward and is due for breakthrough season very soon. It’s time for them to start winning and be a threat in the Big Ten once again. What better time to start than now?
Will Desautelle is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org