Penn State has won five games in a row now, and the Nittany Lions seem to be improving with each successive victory. They have progressed from a nail-biter against Minnesota to a complete demolition of an Iowa team that was in the Rose Bowl a year ago, with a dramatic upset of then-No. 2 Ohio State sandwiched in between.
Still, I think it’s hard for a lot of fans and observers to shake the idea that another shoe is going to drop at some point and send the Nittany Lions plummeting back to reality.
Visions of frustrating offensive performances last season against Temple and Northwestern — and two years ago against Maryland and Illinois — flicker in the subconscious, even as the stats tell us this team has a good chance to steamroll the three teams left on its regular season schedule.
If Penn State was going to lose another game this season, what would that look like? If we go position by position, it doesn’t seem to have a clear weakness.
The quarterback could be better, as we talked about last week, but Trace McSorley has such a multi-faceted game that it’s hard to completely shut him down. If he has a bad day passing, he can still do damage in Penn State’s base read-option run looks, taking the ball himself or getting the ball to Saquon Barkley in just the right gaps. If teams creep up to stop the run, he can use his mobility to escape the pocket and get time to find open receivers downfield. Defenses can’t completely win against him.
The running back stable is so much more than just the exceptionally talented Barkley. Freshman Miles Sanders has played his way into the No. 2 role with lightning-fast cuts while shedding the fumbling problem that shadowed him early in the season. Andre Robinson and Mark Allen have found room, too.
The receivers aren’t being asked to do a whole lot in this run-based scheme, but they’ve been up to the challenge when called upon. Saeed Blacknall’s return from injury has especially helped the downfield passing game that Penn State likes to use to soften up defenses for the running game. His speed on the edges is a nice compensation for the overthrows McSorley is prone to, while Chris Godwin has been a useful safety blanket, especially on the third-and-long situations that have been McSorley’s biggest stumbling point.
Mike Gesicki is finally putting it together at tight end. After getting open a lot but frequently dropping key passes last season, he’s been sure-handed and a matchup nightmare this year, breaking free on otherwise well-defended plays to generate big gains. It is at least a bit of a concern, though, that no one else has really stood up and seized the No. 2 roll behind him.
And the offensive line that had been so maligned for two years? Not only have the individuals improved significantly, but coordinator Joe Moorhead has been able to mitigate their warts effectively. They’re still not exceptional pass blockers, but Moorhead has frequently gotten McSorley outside the pocket, giving him the time to look downfield.
And the zone-read run calls? They’re designed to ensure Penn State has an extra blocker on almost every play, making the line look more effective than it might be in the more conventional, pro-style sets Penn State fans were used to not only under Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien, but John Donovan’s offense last season, as well.
Defensively, the line has slowly but surely regained the form it had last season with future pros Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson manning the front. Saturday against Iowa, six defensive linemen had either sacks and/or tackles for loss in helping the Nits hold the Hawkeyes to 30 yards rushing. And with a lot of youth in these spots, there’s still a lot of room to grow.
The linebackers are not only better at the top now that upperclassmen Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda are healthy, but their absence in the first half of the season helped cultivate depth. Guys like Brandon Smith and Manny Bowen, who otherwise may not have seen much playing time, have grown into players who are useful now, not just in the future. That’s a huge boost for the group that had among the most question marks in the preseason.
And this secondary has quietly been the steadying force for this unit all the way. While the linemen were growing out of their inexperience and the linebackers were dealing with injuries, safeties Marcus Allen and Malik Golden continued to keep the top on this defense, not allowing anyone to truly gash Penn State deep, while corners John Reid and Grant Haley haven’t allowed many receivers to have big individual days.
The special teams have been great, too. Kicker Tyler Davis doesn’t miss when a kick crosses the line of scrimmage. Punter Blake Gillikin has been key in establishing Penn State’s field position advantage. And kickoff specialist Joey Julius is rarely giving opponents a chance to return kicks these days.
Looks pretty air tight, doesn’t it?
So if there’s an Achilles heel for this team, it’s going to be situational.
For example, Penn State has struggled on third down this season, and while it looked better against Iowa, any team that can tap into those struggles the way Ohio State did, holding the Nits to 2 of 13 third-down conversions, will give itself a chance to win with a few big plays.
Penn State also has enjoyed good field position largely by avoiding costly turnovers. The group that beats these Nits is going to have to flip that, take care of the ball and set up short fields for itself.
It does not seem, though, as if Penn State has a position group that can be picked on to great benefit. Perhaps a team will expose one in ways we haven’t seen yet, but until that happens, it’s easy to see why ESPN’s FPI gives this team a 63 percent chance to win out and finish the regular season with a 10-2 record.