Best-case scenario: 4 factors that could help Penn State enjoy a special season
The proverbial dog days of summer can be long and tedious for college football fans.
But each passing day brings us closer to the launch of the 2016 season, which for the Big Ten, includes one high-profile clash (Wisconsin vs. LSU at iconic Lambeau Field in Green Bay), one daunting West Coast trip (Rutgers at Washington) and then a number of eminently beatable opponents for the first weekend (Sept. 1-3).
In the coming weeks, Land Of 10 will offer a “Best-Case Scenario” preview for the Big Ten’s presumed lot of bowl-bound clubs.
First up, it’s Penn State and Year 3 of the James Franklin coaching era. Here are four factors that will make or break the Nittany Lions’ season:
1. Sophomore Saquon Barkley becomes a household name before Halloween
College football is blessed with a large cluster of returning high-profile tailbacks, a list which includes:
- Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey (2,664 total yards last year),
- LSU’s Leonard Fournette (good bet for 2,200 rushing yards this fall),
- Oregon’s Royce Freeman (two-year average: 1,855 total yards, 19 TDs),
- Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (perhaps college football’s best open-field rusher),
- Georgia’s Nick Chubb (1,700-yard back, when healthy),
- Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd (1,475 total yards, 14 TDs),
- Baylor’s Shock Linwood (solid bet for 1,500 rushing yards/15 TDs),
- Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine (FBS record-holder for single-game rushing yards).
As such, cracking the subjective market of household name could be tough, even for a dynamic talent like Barkley, the Big Ten’s best freshman rusher last season (1,076 yards) who also bears an early physical resemblance to NFL star LeSean McCoy.
In his first collegiate month of activity, Barkley (5.9 yards per carry, 8 total TDs last season) racked up 115 rushing yards and one touchdown against Buffalo and 195 rushing yards and two TDs against Rutgers over consecutive Saturdays.
Citing a four-pack of Big Ten foes last year (Ohio State, Maryland, Illinois, Northwestern), Barkley also averaged 143 total yards and one TD. Against the Buckeyes, the freshman notched 194 rushing yards.
And for good measure, Barkley tallied five games of 100-plus rushing yards in Year 1.
Barkley’s emerging evolution as a back involves getting more carries, flirting with 1,500 rushing yards and perhaps collecting double-digit touchdowns by season’s end. But Penn State needs to make substantial team strides as well to fully maximize Barkley’s impact:
Of the eight running backs listed above, their respective teams had a cumulative record of 85-22 last season.
2. Kevin Givens belies his age and becomes the face of the Penn State defensive line
The Nittany Lions defense, which ranked 21st nationally in scoring last year, has lost three major cogs from the defensive line – Austin Johnson (6.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss), Anthony Zettel (4 sacks, 11 tackles for loss) and Carl Nassib (19.5 tackles for loss), the 2015 national sack champion (15.5 sacks).
This creates a great opportunity for the 19-year-old Givens – a supremely athletic linebacker-turned-defensive-tackle who reportedly bulked up big-time during his redshirt campaign – to become the new leader of Penn State’s revamped defensive line. It should also help defensive ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan get greater traction in the pass-rushing realm.
After all, if Penn State had one criticism from last season, it’s this: The Nittany Lions ranked sixth nationally with tackles for loss … but only 30th in sacks and 119th in red-zone defense.
3. QB Trace McSorley quickly becomes the ideal fit in Joe Moorhead’s versatile offense
Christian Hackenberg has the requisite size, pocket presence and rocket arm to flourish at the NFL level someday.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Nittany Lions coaches were devastated to see Hackenberg forgo his final college season for the NFL draft, where he was the second-round pick of the New York Jets.
The reasoning: There have been rumblings that Penn State head coach James Franklin – along with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead – would prefer a quarterback with more versatility in the running game.
Enter the sophomore McSorley, a former 4-star recruit who could be a sustainable weapon in a spread attack. At the very least, his presence could jump-start a Penn State offense that, among Big Ten teams last year, had pedestrian rankings with total offense (9th) and passing yards (10th).
On a national scale, the Nittany Lions ranked 71st in time of possession, 113th in first downs and 125th in third-down-conversion percentage.
Of course, it’s worth noting McSorley hasn’t officially won the job as Penn State’s starting quarterback. He’ll likely compete with Tommy Stevens and Jake Zembiec heading into fall camp.
However, as stated in the ‘Big Ten breakouts’ piece from a few weeks ago, McSorley might already hold the upper hand in this competition after passing for 281 yards on 23 of 27 completions and four touchdowns in the spring game.
Aiding McSorley’s case – or whoever lands the QB job – Penn State has a deep group of experienced playmakers, namely Barkley (1,237 total yards, 20 TDs as a freshman), receivers Chris Godwin (69 catches, 1,101 yards, 5 TDs), DaeSean Hamilton (45 catches, 580 yards, 6 TDs), Saaed Blacknall and tight end Mike Gesicki.
4. The Nittany Lions avoid multi-game losing streaks at every turn
Penn State has five red-letter games on its schedule: Road trips to Pittsburgh (Sept. 10) and Michigan (Sept. 24) and three home tilts with Ohio State (Oct. 22), Iowa (Nov. 5) and Michigan State (Nov. 26).
If the Nittany Lions can win at least three of the above clashes, that should qualify as a successful mission. But there’s a secondary aspect to this: Even if Penn State goes 1-4 or 0-5 for these signature outings, the program must steer clear of the so-called ‘hangover effect’ spilling into the following week.
Citing the last two seasons, Penn State had a 2-3 record in games immediately after facing a ranked opponents; and right after a loss during that span, PSU had a 3-7 mark.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.