Penn State offense’s evolution into one of the nation’s most exciting in 2016 was rapid and remarkable, but the Nittany Lions found another level of explosiveness in the Rose Bowl.
After a slow start, Penn State scored on seven consecutive scoring drives in the second and third quarters. Even more incredible: at one point the Nittany Lions scored on four consecutive offensive plays.
Alabama’s offense scored 45 points against Southern Cal, but no one else had more than 31 against the Trojans. USC hadn’t allowed more than 27 points in eight straight games, but Penn State scored 28 in a span of 5 minutes, 28 seconds to turn a 27-14 deficit into a 42-27 advantage.
In that span, tight end Mike Gesicki made a fabulous catch in the end zone, Chris Godwin collected a deflected pass while spinning at near top speed before cruising for a touchdown and Saquon Barkley made six USC defenders miss en route to a zig-zagging, stunning 79-yard score.
After a 2-2 start, Penn State inspired flashbacks to 1994 and that breathtaking offense led by Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter.
Penn State’s offense set school records, helped deliver a Big Ten championship and put on a memorable show in the Rose Bowl.
Here’s a look at the statistical breakdown for the offense:
|BY THE NUMBERS||2016||Big Ten rank||NCAA rank|
|3rd down %||32.56%||12th||118th|
|20+ yard plays||91||1st||5th|
|40+ yard plays||30||1st||3rd|
Also, here’s what that looked like halfway through the season, before Penn State defeated then-No. 2 Ohio State and launched a Big Ten title run.
|BY THE NUMBERS||2016||Big Ten rank||NCAA rank|
|3rd down %||27.4%||14th||123rd|
|20+ yard plays||35||2nd||T-20th|
|50+ yard plays||7||1st||T-8th|
Trace McSorley began the season as one of the smallest starting quarterbacks for a Power 5 team, and he had little experience at this level. He finished the year by throwing four touchdowns in three straight games, including a couple of “how’d he do that?” throws in the Big Ten title game and Rose Bowl.
The final numbers were staggering: 3,614 passing yards, 29 touchdown passes, 3,979 total yards. McSorley had set the program single-season record in all three categories before the Rose Bowl. He finished with the second-highest quarterback rating for a season in school history, behind only Collins in 1994.
Tommy Stevens played well in mop-up duty. There is a 4-star quarterback committed for the Class of 2017 (Sean Clifford) and 2018 (Justin Fields). They are all going to have to wait a while to play.
Running backs: A-
Barkley finished with the fifth-most rushing yards in a season in school history (1,496), and the second-most all-purpose yards (1,972). His 306 all-purpose yards against Southern Cal were the third-most in a single game in the history of the program, and it came against a top-10 team in the Rose Bowl.
He will begin his junior season in the lead pack of Heisman Trophy contenders. As a team, Penn State was inefficient at times running the ball. The Nittany Lions had interesting depth, but early fumble problems for freshman Miles Sanders cost him some work later in the year. Andre Robinson is a bigger back. Mark Allen had one more carry in 2016 than 2015, and he could lose playing time if Sanders takes on an expanded role in 2017.
Wide receivers/tight ends: A
Godwin had more volume as a sophomore with 69 catches and more than 1,100 yards, but he was a steady No. 1 wideout in a balanced attack as a junior. His nine-catch, 187-yard performance against USC was a high-profile display of his all-around talent.
Gesicki surpassed DaeSean Hamilton as the No. 2 target, and he could be an All-America tight end in 2017. Hamilton’s production dropped for a second straight season, but he had a huge night against Wisconsin in the conference title game.
DeAndre Thompkins had a strong start to the season and Saeed Blacknall had a huge finish before being suspended for the finale. Barkley was reliable out of the backfield as well. Irv Charles made arguably the most important catch of the season to ignite a comeback against Minnesota in Week 5. Charles and Juwan Johnson could be breakout stars next season.
Offensive line: B
The preseason narrative for Penn State was pretty simple: Lots of exciting skill players, but uncertainty at quarterback and two years of ghastly offensive line play to improve upon.
Penn State had yielded 83 sacks in the past two seasons, but reduced that total to 24 in 14 games this year. The line was overrun at times in losses to Pittsburgh and, especially, to Michigan, but both Gesicki and Barkley have developed into capable blockers when needed to chip in.
The only area where Penn State made a comparable improvement was with freshman punter Blake Gillikin.
The line overcame injuries to three offensive tackles, and ended up needing nine players to start at least three games. Only senior center Brian Gaia started all 14 games.
Barkley became Big Ten offensive player of the year. Gesicki became one of the best tight ends in the conference. McSorley did the same at the quarterback position. Godwin’s star turn on such a big stage could drastically improve his NFL draft stock.
First-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead fielded calls about head coaching positions. Gesicki went from little-used tight end to having to release a statement saying he would not enter the NFL draft. Godwin still might depart.
Penn State has won two national championships and had five undefeated seasons during the past 50 years. It hasn’t had that many offenses that were better than this one, and certainly none more entertaining.