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A new chapter begins for James Franklin’s Penn State, but it should be a fun one

The Nittany Lions have one of the best QBs in the country and a favorable schedule. You can do some damage with that combo.

NCAA Football: Penn State Blue White Game
James Franklin
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

[This preview has been updated to reflect roster news from late in the offseason.]

Four points. A four-year project, punctuated by a two-year ascent, came up short by four points.

  • Penn State led Ohio State by five points into the final two minutes in Columbus but allowed a touchdown with 1:48 left and couldn’t respond, falling 39-38.
  • A week later, the Nittany Lions dealt with a massive rain delay and an opportunistic Michigan State defense, averaging 6.8 yards per play but throwing three picks. With no time left on the clock, Matt Coghlin’s field goal won the game for MSU, 27-24.

PSU needed to have made one more play in each. Win the former, and you go to the Big Ten title game for the second straight year, with a CFP bid on the line. Win the latter, and you miss the conference title game but still have an outside chance at a Playoff bid, as Alabama proved.

There is no shame in barely losing on the road to two awesome teams. Penn State finished 11-2 with a win over a strong Washington in the Fiesta Bowl. It was PSU’s second New Year’s Six bowl in as many years, and after a six-year streak of unranked finishes, PSU finished a second straight year in the AP top 10.

Recruiting is going gangbusters, and Franklin’s PSU story didn’t end when Coghlin’s field goal split the uprights. A chapter did, however.

Two years ago, Franklin headed in under some pressure. He had gone 7-6 in each of his first two seasons at PSU, and while that was a bit of an accomplishment — the school was still dealing with the ramifications of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and after nearly 50 years with one coach, the program was already on its second since — offensive regression was holding the program back.

Franklin brought in former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to bring some life to the offense, and man oh man, did he. Moorhead found kindred spirits in quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley, and a deep set of receivers, and in his first season, PSU improved from 62nd to 18th in Off. S&P+. They were inconsistent but incredibly explosive.

In his second year, they became consistent, rising to 10th in Off. S&P+ and from 80th to eighth in offensive success rate. The defense finished in the Def. S&P+ top 16 for the fourth time in four seasons.

PSU was maybe the best-prepared team in the country in 2017, outscoring opponents 160-23 in the first quarter. It felt like every game started with the Nittany Lions up 14-0, even the losses. They led Ohio State 21-3 early in the second quarter, and despite an early turnover, they were up on MSU, 14-7, when the storm delay came.

Moorhead’s now Mississippi State’s head coach. Barkley is a New York Giant. Receiving leader DaeSean Hamilton is a Bronco, and star tight end Mike Gesicki is a Dolphin. A majority of defensive first-stringers have moved on. A few other assistants have dispersed.

McSorley’s around for one more year, though, and there will be plenty of other names you recognize, like receivers Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins, running back and former all-world recruit Miles Sanders, and defensive end Shareef Miller. Cornerback John Reid is returning from injury.

Underrated defensive coordinator Brent Pry remains in place, and new offensive coordinator (and longtime Franklin assistant) Ricky Rahne passed his first test, pulling the strings for a 545-yard performance against a great Washington defense.

Franklin wrapped up a top-five recruiting class soon after the Fiesta Bowl ended, too. The future is pretty bright.


2017 Penn State offensive radar

Rahne and Franklin connected in Manhattan, Kan., of all places. When Franklin became Ron Prince’s offensive coordinator at Kansas State, Cornell grad Rahne was hired as a graduate assistant. When Franklin became Vanderbilt’s head coach, he brought Rahne along as QBs coach. Rahne held the same role at PSU until Moorhead came to town.

Rahne inherits a tricky situation. Long regarded as an up-and-comer, he finally gets a shot at a major coordinator gig, and he’s got both talent to work with and an almost impossible bar to clear.

2017 Penn State offensive efficiency & explosiveness

For two straight years, Penn State made big plays like no one else in the Big Ten. Without Barkley and Hamilton (and Moorhead), that will almost certainly regress. But with McSorley back, Penn State should still be very dangerous.

Rahne’s Washington performance was intriguing in that he gave us a glimpse of a post-Saquon universe even while Barkley was still around. Barkley gained 175 yards in 25 combined carries and catches, but Rahne gave everyone a chance: nine different players caught at least one pass, and Sanders nearly set a season high in carries.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
Trace McSorley
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

If we’re reading the tea leaves: we could see an all-hands-on-deck situation forming. I mean, if Sanders proves capable of 21 dominant touches per game like Barkley, then I’m sure he’ll get that chance, but the Nittany Lions might take full advantage variety.

  • At running back, you’ve got not only Sanders (191 yards, 6.2 per carry in 2017), but also senior Mark Allen and incoming blue-chipper Ricky Slade.
  • At receiver, Johnson and Thompkins (combined: 82 catches, 1,144 yards, four touchdowns) return, as does junior slot man Brandon Polk (10 catches, 130 yards). And youngsters — four-star redshirt freshman KJ Hamler, five-star freshman Justin Shorter, four-star freshmen Jahan Dotson and Daniel George — could carve out niches.
  • At tight end, Gesicki and his 75 percent catch rate are gone, but 6’4 juniors Jonathan Holland and Nick Bowers have been around a while, and there are a couple of incoming four-stars (Zack Kuntz, Pat Freiermuth).

Then, of course, there’s the Lion position. Moorhead made a point of getting tight end-shaped backup quarterback Tommy Stevens involved, lining him up everywhere and getting him 25 carries (he gained 207 yards and scored four times) and 12 receptions (60 yards, two more touchdowns). The junior-to-be will be prepping to succeed McSorley in 2019, but odds are good he’ll remain involved.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington
DeAndre Thompkins
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

There’s also the line. Penn State has seemingly been dealing with depth and talent problems up front since scholarship reductions landed, and while we still don’t know about the overall talent level, we can probably say depth is no longer an issue.

PSU returns five players with at least nine games of starting experience, including all-conference guard Steven Gonzalez. Former blue-chippers like sophomore Michal Menet and redshirt freshman C.J. Thorpe would have been tossed into the fray a couple of years ago but now have to wait their turn.

Blocking for Barkley was a blessing and a curse. His ability to make something out of nothing saved a lot of blown blocks, but he also improvised into trouble. Even last year, as PSU put together a No. 4 ranking in Rushing S&P+, the Nittany Lions ranked 95th in stuff rate (runs stopped at or behind the line).

At first glance, Sanders appears to be a more straight-forward runner. He might not save as many broken plays, but he might take more advantage of the blocks he gets.

McSorley’s the ace in the hole. After completing 55.5 percent of his passes with a 134.1 passer rating in his first seven games as a Moorhead starter, he has completed 65 percent, with a 162.1 rating, since.

With defenses forcing him to read “pass” on run-pass options, he stepped up, throwing for 3,570 yards last fall. He completed between 53 and 57 passes to four different receivers and between 10 and 28 to another four.

Rahne has gotten a sustained look at a successful McSorley offense, and I doubt he changes too much in Moorhead’s absence. And why should he? McSorley is maybe the most proven quarterback in FBS.


2017 Penn State defensive radar

While Franklin has always recruited well, PSU hasn’t yet been ready to match the depth of the Ohio States and (on one side of the ball, at least) Michigans of the world, especially after a couple of key 2017 injuries. So Pry solved that problem by ... pretty much playing everybody.

Pry got more players involved than almost any defensive coach in the country. By the end of the season, 31 players (12 linemen, eight linebackers, and 11 defensive backs) had made at least five tackles each, and 19 had made at least 13.

There were senior leaders, from tackle Parker Cothren to linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith to basically the entire starting secondary. But if you proved you could play, you saw the field, and Pry was especially quick to sub during blowouts (of which there were many). One assumes Pry will have a lot of fun with the new redshirt rules, too.

Michigan v Penn State
Shareef Miller (48) and Kevin Givens (30)
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

All that subbing might’ve created a lifeline. About nine starters are gone from last year’s lineup. But almost everyone from the most reps-heavy second string in the country is back.

Up front, things look great. Eight of 12 contributors are back, and while all three departures in that group came at tackle, juniors Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor were among the leading contributors there, and at first glance, there’s plenty of young depth. At end, junior Shareef Miller (11 tackles for loss, five sacks) returns. Plus, four sophomores made at least a couple of TFLs. At least one (Shaka Toney, perhaps?) could be ready for a breakout. [Since this preview was first posted, Ryan Buchholz, a junior defensive end who was expected to take on an expanded role, retired for medical reasons.]

For the rest of the defense, it’s an “a lot is gone, and a lot returns” story. The top two linebackers are gone, though the third, Manny Bowen, is back with the team after leaving earlier in the year. Senior end Torrence Brown announced he won’t be playing this season.

Elsewhere, Koa Farmer and Cam Brown combined for 57 tackles last year, and Farmer had 5.5 TFLs, and incoming Micah Parsons was the No. 5 recruit in the country per 247.

At secondary, it’s even better/worse. Last year’s starting four are gone, but corner John Reid (five TFLs and nine passes defensed in 2016) returns after missing last season with a knee injury, and Amani Oruwariye nearly led the team with 12 passes defensed last year. They’re basically returning starters, and sophomore Tariq Castro-Fields made the most of his opportunities, recording two TFLs and four passes defensed in reserved duty.

Things are a little thinner at safety, but senior Nick Scott and juniors Ayron Monroe and Garrett Taylor still saw enough of the field to combine for 47 tackles.

If you break the defense into the backbone (tackle, inside linebackers, safety) and the outside attackers (end, OLB, cornerback), PSU looks fantastic in the latter but thin in the former. Where injuries strike could play a major role.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Northwestern
Amani Oruwariye
Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Special teams has been a bit of a roller coaster. During 2016’s Rose Bowl run, the Nittany Lions surged from 81st to 11th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to the superb combo of kicker Tyler Davis (22-for-24 on field goals) and freshman punter Blake Gillikin (42.8 average, 28th in punt efficiency).

In 2017, Gillikin got even better (10th in efficiency), but Davis lost his way. He went from nearly automatic on shorter field goals (19-for-21 on FGs under 40 yards) to barely 50 percent (7-for-12), and after making all of his longer shots in 2016, he missed three of five.

Gillikin’s back, and DeAndre Thompkins is a brilliant punt returner. But Barkley’s kick returns will be missed, and Davis is gone.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Appalachian State 63 20.9 89%
8-Sep at Pittsburgh 45 13.1 77%
15-Sep Kent State 127 38.1 99%
21-Sep at Illinois 99 25.3 93%
29-Sep Ohio State 1 -4.3 40%
13-Oct Michigan State 11 4.7 61%
20-Oct at Indiana 58 15.5 81%
27-Oct Iowa 36 15.5 81%
3-Nov at Michigan 10 -0.6 49%
10-Nov Wisconsin 12 4.9 61%
17-Nov at Rutgers 84 20.8 89%
24-Nov Maryland 80 24.4 92%
Projected S&P+ Rk 8
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 8 / 15
Projected wins 9.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 11.2 (18)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 8 / 16
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 12 / 10.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 52% (51%, 53%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 10.8 (0.2)

If you focus on who’s gone, it’s easy to see a reset year. So much star power, on both the coaching staff and the field, is gone, and in terms of known play-makers, PSU is an injury or two away from being thin at WR, DT, LB, and safety.

If you focus on who’s back, though, it looks like another top-10 performance is within reach. First, you’ve got McSorley, one of the country’s most proven players in the most important position. He should still be surrounded by plus athletes, his line should be better than ever, and last year’s approach on defense means lots of contributors return.

S&P+ sees more of the latter than the former. PSU is projected to fall from fourth to only eighth, sticking the Nittany Lions in another Big Ten East race. Ohio State and Michigan State have to visit Happy Valley, as does Wisconsin, and only one conference road foe (Michigan) is projected higher than 58th.

If PSU is ready to play at a top-10 level again, the schedule could make Franklin’s squad Ohio State’s biggest challenger.

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