LOS ANGELES — No team finishes a season at a place like the Rose Bowl without contributions from a lot of unexpected places, and Penn State is no different.
Sure, there were plenty of players in starring roles for the Nittany Lions this season. Penn State does not win the Big Ten and get to play Southern Cal on Monday in one of the sport’s most revered venues without excellent seasons from players like Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and Marcus Allen.
It also doesn’t climb as high as No. 5 in the national rankings and claim its first outright conference title since 1994 without key performances from players like defensive back Grant Haley, linebacker Brandon Smith, offensive line Swiss-army knife Ryan Bates and kickoff/big hit specialist Joey Julius.
This team has dealt with injuries to key players and a concentrated dose of ailments at specific positions. At one point, all three starting linebackers and half the secondary was injured. There have been three offensive tackles lost for the remainder of the season. When that happens, there are other players who have to step in and play well.
“We had this conversation (among some coaches) the other day,” assistant coach Tim Banks said. “You look at a highlight reel from our season and you see so many different guys making plays, guys that you wouldn’t even think of. A guy like (freshman linebacker) Cam Brown — he blocks that punt against Ohio State. That was a huge play and he’s been great on special teams.”
Who were the players that didn’t receive as much credit for Penn State’s success as they deserved? During Rose Bowl media day, Land of 10 asked 11 players (and one assistant coach) from various positions a simple question: Who is the unsung hero on this football team?
There isn’t an easy answer. Three guys said “there are too many to point out just one,” but all three pointed to the defensive line as a whole after the unit lost three starters to the NFL after last season.
Here are the results:
Brian Gaia, center (3 votes)
Gaia is a fifth-year senior who started all 13 games at center. He’s the only member of the offensive line to start every game and not switch positions.
Don’t take that as Gaia getting off easy, though. He’s played two other positions (defensive tackle, offensive guard) in his career and made the switch to center for 2016. He’s also clearly respected by his peers for his work off the field as well.
“I would say the O-line, definitely the O-line, and if I had to pick a player, in my opinion, who don’t get as much credit as he should, that would be Brian Gaia,” Barkley said. “He’s a leader on the team. He’s the one that makes everything go. Obviously, Trace makes a lot of calls at the quarterback position, but it starts with Brian Gaia and his decision to set us up for run games, and he’s been the reason why I myself and all the running backs are successful in the run game, not only him but the whole offensive line, but he’s a leader there and the guy that makes the calls, and in my opinion Brian Gaia is a guy that doesn’t get as much credit as he should on the offensive side of the ball.”
The offensive line was a huge question mark for the Nittany Lions before the season, but it’s also improved greatly as the campaign has progressed. New offensive line coach Matt Limegrover deserves credit for that, along with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Gaia, as the grizzled veteran and anchor of a unit that was constantly shifting and changing around him, does as well.
“I’d say Brian Gaia,” junior tackle Andrew Nelson said. “He’s a captain, but just being an offensive lineman, you’re not talked about unless you’re doing something wrong and then you’re talked about a lot. He’s done a great job leading this team. Every game, he goes out there and is a technician and helps our offense be successful, but he doesn’t get much credit for it. Without him, I don’t think you’d see this offense be nearly as successful this year.”
Tyler Davis, kicker (3 votes)
Who says kickers aren’t integral parts of a football team? Penn State has three guys — Davis, Julius and freshman punter Blake Gillikin — who could have landed on this list. Julius and Gillikin received a lot of exposure and praise for their work, so it makes sense that Davis came to mind for a trio of teammates.
“I’d say Tyler Davis,” junior wideout Chris Godwin said. “He’s been so consistent the entire time he’s been here. A lot of the work he does goes unnoticed. We understand that whenever he gets called on, he’s going to come in and he’s going to come through for us.”
Davis has been incredibly reliable during his two seasons with the Nittany Lions. The junior has made 30 of 32 field goals in his career, including 22 of 24 this season. Both of his misses were blocked. He also nailed all 55 extra-point attempts.
His 40-yard field goal in the final seconds of regulation sent the game to overtime against Minnesota, and was an underrated moment in a contest filled with big ones that helped launch the current nine-game winning streak.
“I think someone that doesn’t get a lot of attention but still plays a huge role in the success that we’ve had is Tyler Davis,” senior defensive end Evan Schwan said. “It is his consistency and his ability to be clutch and just not miss.”
Malik Golden, safety (1 vote)
Allen and Haley have combined forces on two of the biggest plays of the year — the blocked field goal returned for a touchdown against Ohio State and the fourth-down stop to seal the Big Ten championship against Wisconsin.
John Reid is the team’s top defensive back, strong in coverage and against the run and likely a strong prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft. That leaves Golden, the fourth member of the secondary.
He’s the oldest, as a fifth-year senior. He might not be as flashy, but his contributions have not gone unnoticed.
“I guess the guy who comes to mind to me is Malik Golden,” Banks said. “He’s had a really good season. He’s been a leader for our guys, not just in the secondary but our whole defense. Malik doesn’t get all of the fanfare, but we have some concerns about who is going to step up when he leaves and be that vocal leader and help us be that glue guy.”
Chasz Wright, offensive tackle (1 vote)
Wright is a good example of how Penn State’s offensive line has overcome injuries and proven how deep it is as a unit. A redshirt sophomore, Wright played a little bit earlier in the season, but eventually had to replace Brendan Mahon at left tackle during the Iowa game.
The following week, he moved over to right tackle and has started the past four games there. Despite facing three bowl teams (and strong defenses from Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin) the offense has just kept on rolling.
“There are a lot of good choices, but I want to say Chasz Wright,” Gaia said. “We threw him in there at a tough time, in kind of a new position, and he’s played really well for us. He hadn’t get many live reps, and if he did it was in blowouts, but he came in during a tougher part of our schedule in the Big Ten and really played well. He was coming into a tough situation.”
Joe Moorhead, offensive coordinator (1 vote)
This was Golden’s choice.
“Joe Moorhead,” he said.
“Do you see how many points they’ve put up?” he replied.
That’s a pretty good answer, Malik.