Penn State has reached the midway point of its season, and has a bye week before No. 2 Ohio State comes to Beaver Stadium for a Saturday night showdown Oct. 22. It’s a good time to take stock of what has transpired for the Nittany Lions and what might lie ahead.
Considering the amount of names that have ended up on Penn State’s injury list, the Nittany Lions could certainly use a break.
It’s possible that having the extra week off to prepare for Ohio State will help a few of Penn State’s injured players return to the lineup. Reinforcements would be welcome, particularly at linebacker and cornerback.
Another remedy? Some under-the-radar players break out in the second half, starting with the game against the Buckeyes.
The Nittany Lions have already gotten such performances in the season’s first half, from sources both expected and unexpected.
Trace McSorley won the quarterback job in fall camp and has cemented his place as conductor of the new-look offense, and true freshman Blake Gillikin has lived up to his billing as a scholarship punter. DeAndre Thompkins was an obvious choice to step in when speedster Saeed Blacknall was injured, and his development should strengthen the receiving corps when Blacknall returns.
Others, such as Brandon Smith, have been a far bigger surprise. Smith entered the season as the team’s fourth option at middle linebacker, but the walk-on was starting by Week 4. He was just named Big Ten defensive player of the week after 14 tackles and an interception against Maryland, continuing an incredible story that reaches far beyond football.
Following the Ohio State game, Penn State finishes the regular season with five games in which it could be favored. So, with eyes on a big season-ending run, who are the Nittany Lions’ biggest breakout candidates of the second half?
Here are five players to keep an eye on:
LB Manny Bowen
Bowen was probably already a breakout performer in the first half. Expected to be a top reserve at linebacker, he and fellow sophomore Jake Cooper were thrust into the lineup almost immediately because of injuries.
While Cooper has also missed time because of an injury, Bowen has become the team’s most disruptive player at the position, leading the team with 5 tackles for loss.
Bowen makes this list because Jason Cabinda could be close to returning, and that could help Bowen progress even more. He looks like a future star at a position that has had a few in this program’s history. If Bowen continues to develop and Cabinda returns, Penn State’s situation at linebacker will be much less tenuous, and maybe even a strength.
RB Miles Sanders
Mark Allen and Andre Robinson have been fine as backup options for when Saquon Barkley needs a breather. But neither has the potential to be an impact player like Sanders. The freshman got one snap at running back last Saturday against Maryland, and took it 25 yards for first career touchdown.
Sanders has had trouble holding onto the football, and that’s the quickest way for a freshman to spend his Saturdays watching instead of playing. In the limited work he’s received, however, he looks like a well-rounded running back with the potential to produce big plays.
If Sanders can earn the coaching staff’s trust, this offense could take another half-step forward in the second half just by giving him a handful of carries per game and maybe giving Barkley a few more plays of rest.
OG Connor McGovern
McGovern is another true freshman who needed time to earn some trust. He’s finding his way onto the field and making an impact when he’s out there.
Check out No. 66’s work on Barkley’s big touchdown run late in the first half against the Terps:
The offensive line is going to miss injured right tackle Andrew Nelson in a big way, but McGovern gaining more playing time in the second half could prevent the line’s overall performance from slipping too much.
LB/S Koa Farmer
Farmer switched from safety to linebacker because of all the injuries at the position, and the redshirt sophomore had his best game against the Terps with 5 tackles, including 1.5 for a loss and a sack. But, if Cabinda and Cooper can return from injuries, Farmer might not be needed as much at linebacker.
That doesn’t mean he can’t still help, however, with a shift back to safety. With Farmer at linebacker, the Nittany Lions are basically able play their base 4-3 defense or a nickel package on any play without making substitutions. Farmer could be an interesting tactical weapon for Brent Pry’s defense with respect to substitutions moving forward, or he could just provide needed depth at both positions.
WRs Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson
OK, so it will be six players instead of five. Blacknall’s return probably means less opportunities for redshirt freshmen Charles and Johnson, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be more injuries — or opportunities. Both players have one catch this season, and both were big plays. Johnson picked up 27 yards during the furious second-half comeback against Pitt, while Charles made arguably the biggest play of the first half against Minnesota with his 80-yard touchdown when Penn State was teetering down 10 points.
Charles and Johnson are tantalizing prospects because they are both 6-foot-4 and can really run. When they get a chance to play, they increase the chances for a big play as defenses direct more attention to players like Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki.
Check out Penn State’s midseason grades: