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Penn State was 2016’s most fun team. Now 2017 means huge expectations

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The reigning Big Ten champs won’t fly under any opponents’ radars this time around.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

“James Franklin and his teams seem to do best when they feel they're being underestimated, and they might indeed be underestimated in 2016.” That’s a line from last year’s Penn State preview, when I professed Penn State’s head coach was doing a better job than most thought but that a fast start would be key.

I get half-credit, at least.

Penn State surged in 2016, from 7-6 and 35th in S&P+ to 11-3 and eighth. The Nittany Lions were 0-6 against Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State in Franklin’s first two years but went 2-1 in 2016, which sparked a run to the Big Ten title.

But the Nittany Lions surged despite a slow start. The defense was shuffled around early in the year and needed a month to settle in and get healthy. The offense showed potential against Pitt and Temple but got erased by Michigan.

PSU hit October at just 2-2, and despite outplaying Minnesota on October 1, the Nittany Lions trailed the Gophers 23-20 at home with a minute left. But Trace McSorley found himself in engineering a last-second field goal drive; PSU won in overtime and never looked back.

They beat Ohio State with special teams — something that almost never happens to Urban Meyer — and then played one of the season’s most perfect games, a 41-14 shellacking of a solid Iowa. They survived a slow start against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game, then accelerated to a 38-31 win. They played in probably 2016’s most exciting bowl, a 52-49 loss to USC that did nothing to dampen sudden top-10 stature.

Penn State was ... fun. Even in Joe Paterno’s best days, the football, based mostly around a hard-nosed running game and harder-nosed linebackers, was rarely aesthetically pleasing. But OC Joe Moorhead’s offense stretched the field like Al Davis’ 1970s Raiders, identifying happy matchups and successfully going deep almost any time PSU fell behind the chains (which was often).

The Nittany Lions also weren’t particularly lucky. A surge like this usually coincides with good fortune, but PSU had an unreliable offensive line, and injuries were so bad at linebacker that the only player there who saw action in all 14 games was a walk-on.

So that sets up an interesting set of dueling narratives. On one hand, last year’s inefficiency could be rectified by a line that can actually block — despite all the deep success in the world, PSU still ranked 80th in success rate, 118th in power success rate, and 119th in stuff rate. It’s hard to live forever with constant second-and-longs, but in theory, the Lions won’t see as many. Plus, USC game aside, PSU’s defense played like nearly a top-10 unit once stable at linebacker, and now the linebacking corps is loaded with experience.

On the other hand, no one will underestimate Penn State any more. You can’t fly under the radar in the preseason top 10. The defending conference champions will get an A-game performance from everyone, and it’s safe to say teams like Iowa and Ohio State are licking their chops in welcoming PSU to town.

Penn State won’t quite have the depth of other national title contenders; Franklin’s recruiting has been good and is getting better, but we’re talking top-20 good, not Meyer/Saban good. Injuries could be more devastating to PSU than they would be for Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, and maybe USC.

Still, after what they pulled for the last two months of last season, these Nittany Lions get the benefit of the doubt. From the last minute of the Minnesota game until the last minute of the Rose Bowl, Penn State played like a title-caliber team. The obstacles are different this time (and that October 28 trip to Columbus might tamp down aspirations), but the potential is even greater.


2016 in review

2016 Penn State statistical profile.

When the light bulb goes on for a team, it isn’t typically this stark:

Penn State vs. Vegas

After the Week 4 debacle against Michigan, PSU started to get key pieces (namely linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell) back from injury, and the surge began.

  • First 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 67% (~top 40) | Avg. yards per play: PSU 5.4, Opp 5.4 (plus-0.0) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-7.4 PPG
  • Next 9 games (9-0): Avg. percentile performance: 88% (~top 15) | Avg. yards per play: PSU 6.9, Opp 4.9 (plus-2.0) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-10.2 PPG

PSU was one of the most steadily awesome teams in the country after the first month, outgaining opponents by 2 yards per play in that span despite playing three S&P+ top-11 teams. That’s not supposed to happen when you’ve got an inefficient offense, or when that offense waits until the second half to figure out all the answers — Off. S&P+ ranking by quarter: 62nd in the first, 27th in the second, first in the third, fourth in the fourth — but that’s how it played out.


Offense

Penn State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

If I hadn’t watched a single second of Penn State and only had the stats in front of me, I would reach two broad conclusions:

  1. With that many big gains and negative plays, the Nittany Lions either had a running back who danced around far too much or a line that couldn’t block a good Division II front.
  2. Relying that much on big plays is not sustainable.

Barkley risks short losses for huge gains, but the eyeballs suggest that the proper answer to Conclusion No. 1 is that the line was still a mess. And its improvement is the key to addressing Conclusion No. 2.

Franklin brought in Minnesota’s Matt Limegrover as line coach when Herb Hand left for Auburn, and while Limegrover has a track record, he had little to work with. By the end of 2016, nine different linemen had started at least three games, and 26 starts had gone to freshmen. Only two players started all 14 games up front, and one was freshman Ryan Bates.

Almost no line in the country will succeed with that combination of youth and shuffling. But injuries heal, and freshmen become sophomores.

Six players who accounted for 46 of last year’s 70 combined starts return, including Bates and senior tackles Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson. There appears to be a nice mix of experience, size (those six players average 6’5, 320, and that’s based on last year’s listings), and potential (three of the six were four-star recruits, and three other former four-stars wait in the wings).

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State
Trace McSorley (9) and Saquon Barkley (26)
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

If Limegrover can keep his starting five on the field, imagine what that could mean for Barkley. The junior and Heisman contender gained five-plus yards on just 35 percent of his carries (about five percent lower than the national average) but still averaged 5.5 yards per carry and ripped off 19 gains of 20-plus yards. He also averaged 14.4 yards per catch (unheard of for a running back) over 28 receptions.

Barkley carried a massive load, but sophomores Andre Robinson and Miles Sanders and junior Mark Allen could spell him a bit more. Sanders is particularly enticing; the former blue-chipper averaged 7.4 yards per carry but fumbled four times in 25 carries. Once he can hold onto the ball, he will force his way onto the field.

Be it Barkley’s fault or not, he did lose yardage a lot. That put McSorley in lots of awkward down-and-distance situations, and wow, did McSorley come through. PSU ranked 68th in Rushing S&P+ and second in Passing S&P+. After the Michigan debacle, he was held below a 150 passer rating just twice: against a top-10 Ohio State pass defense and in cold, wet conditions at Rutgers.

McSorley will carry the ball about nine times per game at only about 4.3 yards per (non-sack) carry, but his ability to escape pressure and make plays outside the pocket was immensely important.

McSorley has to find a new No. 1 target now that Chris Godwin is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, but Godwin is the only departure from this dangerous receiving corps. Senior DaeSean Hamilton showed big-play potential in the slot, junior DeAndre Thompkins (16.3 yards per catch, 59 percent catch rate) nearly matched Godwin’s per-target rates, and senior Saeed Blacknall averaged 23.1 yards per catch and torched Wisconsin for 155 yards and two scores.

Oh yeah, and Gesicki might be the best tight end in the country. The senior has incredible hands and post-up skills and combined a split end’s 14.1 yards per catch with a tight end’s 68 percent catch rate. He is 6’6, but his timing and ball skills make him seem 6’9.

PSU’s receiving corps is fine, if thin, if it doesn’t get much from all-or-nothing sophomores Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles (combined: 11 targets, four catches, 176 yards last year). But Charles showed about as much athletic potential as a receiver can with an 80-yard touchdown against Minnesota, and Johnson was the star of spring ball. That PSU doesn’t have to rely on either is important, but there’s a chance both become breakout stars.

Defense

Penn State defensive radar

In Penn State’s three losses, the Nittany Lions allowed a nightmarish 48 points per game and 6.3 yards per play; they scored at least 39 points and lost twice, which is almost a Texas Tech statistic.

In the other 11 games, though? 19.4 points per game and 4.7 yards per play. And two of the three losses happened early, when the linebacking corps was nuked. Because of that, and because of the PSU offense’s early inconsistency (and full-season inefficiency), the defense graded higher per S&P+ (14th) than the offense (18th). Brent Pry’s first year as coordinator was not as iffy as perceived.

It’s a good news, bad news situation heading into 2017.

  • Good: Seven of the top nine linemen, five of the top six linebackers, and five of the top seven defensive backs return, giving the Nittany Lions a level of depth and proven production that they didn’t have last year.
  • Bad: The losses are specific and damaging. Ends Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan are the only departures up front, but they combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. Linebacker Brandon Bell had 7.5 TFLs and five passes defensed despite missing four games. Malik Golden was a dynamic strong safety (six TFLs, four passes defensed), and John Reid, the most active cornerback, tore his ACL in spring ball and will miss the season.

Experience: up. Play-making: down.

PSU has an alarming lack of experience at defensive end. Junior Torrence Brown (six TFLs, 0.5 sacks) was excellent in run defense but hasn’t proven himself as a pass rusher, and Pry will absolutely need contributions from either unproven sophomores (Shareef Miller, Ryan Buchholz) or redshirt freshmen (Shane Simmons, Daniel Joseph, Shaka Toney). Simmons was a big-time recruit, and Buchholz and Joseph were four-stars, but they won’t have a lot of time to ease into their roles.

Penn State v Northwestern
Jason Cabinda
Photo by JonathanDaniel/Getty Images

They will have good tackles and linebackers, though.

  • Linebackers: Cabinda would have been PSU’s leading tackler had he not missed five games, Manny Bowen is dynamite against the run, converted safety Koa Farmer flashed play-making potential in spot duty. Plus, walk-on Brandon Smith, thrust into significant action, made four TFLs and picked off two passes.
  • Tackles: Kevin Givens and Curtis Cothran were a bit undersized (280 or smaller) but combined for 11.5 TFLs and five sacks, while Parker Cothren and Robert Windsor served as boulders at nose tackle. Plus, senior Tyrell Chavis is supremely athletic and could be ready to contribute after showing up from JUCO late in the process last year. Add in another potential bowling ball in four-star redshirt freshman Ellison Jordan, and you’ve got a nice rotation.

An active front created a lot of negative plays and made life easier on the banged-up back seven. The front should remain active despite youth at end, and the secondary should be fine as long as no one else gets hurt. Without Reid, you’ve got senior corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell — the trio basically played equal time last year — and without Golden, you’ve got seniors Marcus Allen and Troy Apke.

After those four, however, it’s all unknown quantities. Four-star sophomore safety Garrett Taylor had a lovely spring, but that doesn’t always translate. And while true freshman corner Lamont Wade was one of the stars of the 2017 class, relying on a freshman corner in a supposed national title push is terrifying.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State
Christian Campbell
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Special Teams

Penn State’s defense improved a little, and the offense improved a lot. But special teams made the biggest jump, rising from 81st in Special Teams S&P+ to 11th.

Blocked kicks basically won the Ohio State game, but the unit’s steadiness was key. Tyler Davis was a strong place-kicker, and returns were okay, but the biggest advance came in the punting game, where freshman Blake Gillikin averaged 43 yards per kick and gave opponents few return opportunities.

PSU improved from 110th to 28th in punt efficiency, and that helped to make up the field position difference when the offense was battling spells of inefficiency.

Everybody’s back in this unit, at least if popular kickoffs guy Joey Julius returns after getting treatment for an eating disorder. And PSU’s got Gillikin for three more years.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Akron 122 39.5 99%
9-Sep Pittsburgh 33 16.0 82%
16-Sep Georgia State 113 36.3 98%
23-Sep at Iowa 48 14.5 80%
30-Sep Indiana 39 17.4 84%
7-Oct at Northwestern 37 12.3 76%
21-Oct Michigan 10 4.1 59%
28-Oct at Ohio State 2 -7.1 34%
4-Nov at Michigan State 44 13.8 79%
11-Nov Rutgers 92 31.2 96%
18-Nov Nebraska 42 18.3 85%
25-Nov at Maryland 72 20.3 88%
Projected S&P+ Rk 8
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 8 / 15
Projected wins 9.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 9.7 (26)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 18 / 21
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 2.2
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 74% (79%, 68%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 10.6 (0.4)

Penn State is the prototypical second-tier national title contender. The Nittany Lions don’t have years of top-five recruiting to lean on if injuries strike, and having to go to Columbus in late-October will make a 12-0 run and division title repeat difficult, even if the injury bug isn’t particularly cruel.

Still, whether the Nittany Lions stick in the title race or not, they’re going to be really good. They boast more proven entities than anyone in the conference not named Ohio State. They have the nation’s scariest back and a “screw it; go deep” offense that will stress defenses like almost no one else can. (It might be more efficient this time around, too.) And if a couple of young ends step up, they should be able to replicate last year’s defensive production.

This is a well-built team, one that surged despite injuries and could now benefit from the experience those injuries created. It should be another fun as hell year in Happy Valley.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.