Trimester Report: Penn State Heads Into Back-End of Season With Improved Report Card
After starting out the season 2-2, the Penn State Nittany Lions have ripped off four straight wins, including an absolutely stunning defeat of the formerly second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Penn State now finds themselves ranked No. 20 in the AP Top 25 Poll and No.12 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, with a record of 6-2 (4-1 Big Ten).
Here are the game grades for the first two-thirds of Penn State’s 2016 campaign:
Trace McSorley may not be the most accurate gunslinger in college football; his throws often may be slightly awry, as evident by him having a completion percentage under 50% in two of his last four games. But Penn State does not necessarily need a traditional pocket passer. His scrambling ability has made Penn State’s read option lethal, and has led to four rushing touchdowns. Turnovers were troublesome for McSorley early in the season, but he’s been able to limit his turnover production. He has not thrown an interception since the Michigan game more than a month ago. McSorley has amassed 251 yards on the ground to go with 1,818 yards passing and 12 touchdowns.
Running Back: A
Saquon Barkley’s stats speak for themselves. He leads the Big Ten with 888 yards rushing, 11 total touchdowns and is second in yards receiving by a running back with 213. With recent games of 277 total yards and 202 rushing yards against Purdue and Maryland respectively, he’s proved to be an irreplaceable part of Penn State’s offense.
Wide Receivers: B-
Unfortunately for Chris Godwin, DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State is a run-heavy offense. Penn State runs the football on 57% of its plays, up from last season’s 51%. The reliance on the run has led to a drastic decrease to Godwin and Hamilton’s numbers. Godwin has been Penn State’s best receiver, catching four touchdown passes and collecting 422 receiving yards. DeAndre Thompkins continues to be a big playmaker for Penn State, with a 53-yard catch against Minnesota and a 70-yard touchdown against Maryland. DaeSean Hamilton, after an auspicious game against Pitt, has not excelled in the slot as expected. Hamilton is averaging a mere 14.1 receiving yards per game.
Tight End: A-
2016 has been kind to the emergence of Mike Gesicki. He is five yards behind Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli in receiving yards by Big Ten tight ends and has almost tripled his receiving production from last season. Listed at 6-foot-6-inches, 252 lbs., Gesicki is not only a terrific safety valve for McSorley but a huge body who draws flags due to his combination of size and speed.
Offensive Line: B+
It has been quite the turnaround for this unit. Much maligned throughout the years and early on in the 2016 campaign, the offensive line of Penn State has only allowed five sacks in the last month of the season after allowing 11 the previous month. But this is a group that still has work to do. They need to continue to create more holes for Barkley to run through, as well as give McSorley more time to throw, but this group has performed better than expected this season.
This group is getting healthier and their performance has reflected this. Brandon Smith and John Reid have been exceptional. Evan Schwan, after missing three out of the team’s first four games to start the season, has had one sack in every game since making his return except last weekend against Purdue. Schawn’s fellow defensive lineman, Garrett Sickels, made Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett’s life miserable in Penn State’s signature win over the Buckeyes with 2.5 sacks. With the return of key defensive starters Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell, the Penn State defense is only improving.
Special Teams: B
For the first third of the season, this unit could do little wrong, but missed extra points, blocked field goals and short punts have been an unpleasant reoccurrence in recent weeks. Penn State’s game-winning return for a touchdown of Ohio State’s blocked field goal has overshadowed the special team’s shortcomings. The special teams unit has to get back to the high level it was playing at in the beginning of the season in order to close out the year strong.
James Franklin’s hot seat is likely gone after his team’s defeat of Ohio State. His defense, banged up at the beginning of the year, improved its play after the Michigan game and got even better with the return of key starters. His coaching of the offense, namely protecting McSorley from having to shoulder the offense and increasing Barkley’s participation in the passing game recently, has the Nittany Lions feeling confident going into the last third of the season.
Nobody could have predicted at the beginning of the season that Penn State would be in the conversation to make the Big Ten Championship. Penn State must win the rest of its games, but with the way all aspects of the team have progressed, it is not out of the realm of possibility.
Charles Hart is a freshman majoring in print journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.