Penn State, just like every other team in the country, went in to 2016 with a plan in place for its depth chart. Of course the coaching staff expected things would change throughout the season, but few could’ve expected to work with what has happened to the Nittany Lions linebackers.
Simply put, the linebacker group has been decimated by injury. On Tuesday things got a bit worse, as it was revealed that star senior linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White was lost for the rest of the season with a knee injury in Penn State’s win over Temple this past weekend.
Not only was Wartman-White an integral part of the plans for the Nittany Lions because of his athletic ability, it was his leadership that meant so much to a group going through plenty of transition.
That news hasn’t been lost on head coach James Franklin, who admitted to a bit of concern with the depth of his linebacking group at his press conference on Tuesday.
“Losing Nyeem, there’s a little bit of concern there,” said Franklin. “His leadership and seniority was instrumental.”
Injuries have already hit this group hard, with expected starters Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda nursing injuries before Wartman-White went down. Both aren’t likely to return this week as Penn State opens up Big Ten play against Michigan at 3:30p.m. ET on Saturday.
For Wartman-White it is back to the drawing board, after he missed the majority of the 2015 season due to injury as well.
For Penn State, it is a loss of player who has been key on the field as well as off of it. Wartman-White has put up 14 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 of a sack and two pass breakups through just in to three games this season.
In his place will be Brandon Smith, a redshirt junior who is known in Pennsylvania athletics more as a wrestler than a football player. The good news there is that Smith answered the bell last week, putting up eight tackles in the win over Temple.
He also might have made the defensive play of the day, stopping Temple wide receiver Keith Kirkwood just shy of the first down marker on on a 4th and 11 play.
That’s good news because Cabinda isn’t ready to return for the Michigan game this weekend.
What will be interesting to see is how this group of rag-tag, unexpected starters takes to playing in a game against Jim Harbaugh’s offense. Can they team up to bottle up De’Veon Smith and create issues for quarterback Wilton Speight?
Considering Penn State has struggled against the run already this season, giving up 176.3 yards per game (12th in the Big Ten), Smith and Co. are going to have to step up no matter the circumstances on Saturday.
If not, it appears that safety Koa Farmer will get a look at linebacker given the lack of depth at the position right now.
That has to be a scary proposition, and with the unknown future for a player with a second major knee injury in as many years…Penn State is in a state of flux at the position that has defined the program more than any other throughout the years.
Penn State wins Fiesta Bowl: The good, the bad and what it means for 2018
Penn State keeps the Big Ten’s undefeated bowl streak alive with big win in the Fiesta Bowl.
Penn State didn’t miss a beat without offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead in Saturday’s 35-28 Fiesta Bowl win over Washington, improving the programs record to an unparalleled 7-0 in the Fiesta Bowl, a mark not matched by any school in any bowl game.
The Nittany Lions’ offensive performance, especially in the first half, is likely the most impressive of the bowl season to-date, and not reflected in the final margin of victory.
The fact the game ended as only a seven-point win is a credit to Washington, who made several big plays to keep themselves in the game, and had the Penn State faithful fearing a case of déjà vu back to Columbus on October 28th.
While 545 total yards and 36 minutes in time of possession reflect the tour de force offensive performance led by McSorley, Barkley and DaeSean Hamilton, if Dante Pettis runs out of bounds on the second-to-last play, instead of attempting an ill-conceived lateral, Washington would have had a shot at a Hail Mary to send it to OT (or Chris Peterson trick play 2-point attempt for the win).
As impressive as the performance was, and it really was, James Franklin is sure to spend the offseason scrutinizing flaws in the Fiesta Bowl, as well as Penn State’s two close road losses.
Saquon Barkley Goes Out In Style
In what is nearly certain to be his final collegiate game, Barkley provided another electric performance racking up 175 total yards and 2 touchdowns, in what was comically described to be a lightened workload. In fact, it was lightened, as he did not return any kickoffs and only needed 18 carries (surprisingly his most since the Ohio State game) to gain 137 yards.
The reigning two-time B1G Offensive Player of the Year displayed the explosive speed that will make him a sure-fire top 10 NFL draft pick in a 92-yard second quarter touchdown run that stretched the lead to 28-7. The play epitomized the threat he poses every time he touches the ball. Once he broke through the line of scrimmage with little contact, there was absolutely no doubt he would blow by the safety and go the remaining 80-yards faster than anyone in the country.
Trace McSorley’s Prelude to a Heisman Campaign
Quarterback Trace McSorley was phenomenal in his Offensive MVP performance. While he could try and parlay it into an NFL future sooner rather than later, forgoing his senior season and declaring early for the 2018 NFL Draft, almost all signs point to his staying in school rather than entering the already crowded QB class.
This not only makes Penn State a B1G and College Football Playoff contender next year, but McSorley a Heisman candidate, with a style in the mold of this year’s winner Baker Mayfield. His Fiesta Bowl was impressive from start to finish with the way he hit DaeSean Hamilton perfectly in stride for the opening TD to his pocket presence and accuracy in repeatedly converting second half third-downs.
The Penn State QB put on a show Saturday afternoon completing 32 of 41 (78%) passes for 341 yards, with 2 TD’s and 2 INT’s. When his 60 rushing yards are factored in, he accounted for over 400 yards of offense versus a heralded Washington defense coming in. These were not numbers racked up against the likes of Akron, Rutgers or Nebraska. This was a prime opponent on a big stage. When added to his resume of 4-touchdown performances in the 2016 B1G Championship win versus Wisconsin and 2017 Rose Bowl versus USC, McSorley is earning a reputation as a stud who rises to the occasion.
Penn State Pass Rush
While the offense stole the show, the defense was crucial in allowing the Nittany Lions to build their 28-14 halftime lead, which resulted in only needing 7 2ND half points for the win. The pass rush really excelled, sacking Huskies QB Jake Browning four times, holding the 2016 Pac-12 Player of the Year to just 175 yards and 1 TD. Browning never seemed comfortable in the pocket, especially to start the game, allowing Penn State to jump to a 14-0 lead (which could have easily been 21, but for a great INT by UW DB Byron Murphy in the back of the Husky end zone) before Washington even got a first down. The effect of the pass rush was felt all the way through Washington’s final drive. After a missed field goal, which was only attempted after a PSU false start on then 4TH and 1, Washington had the momentum and a chance to tie a game they had no business being within reach of. Rather than starting a last minute drive with any rhythm, Browning was under pressure right away, resulting in desperate heaves to avoid sacks rather than high percentage throws for first downs.
Turnovers and Difficulty Holding Leads
There’s a lot less to be upset with than happy about for Penn State and their fans, but a theme that lingers over their only two losses almost reared its head again in yesterday’s Fiesta Bowl – blown leads.
Unlike the two CFP teams from the SEC, Alabama and Georgia, the number one seed Clemson, or the committee’s first team out Ohio State, Penn State didn’t have any bad losses in terms of margin or a weak opponent. In a sense, they were closer to an undefeated season than anyone but Oklahoma or Wisconsin.
They had a fourth quarter lead in both their losses in consecutive weeks at Ohio State and Michigan State. The former was devastating in how thoroughly they dominated the favored Buckeyes to only see the defense yield 3 TD’s in the last eleven and a half minutes. The latter was a somewhat flukey affair in which a three and a half hour weather delay forced the teams to wait around, for Penn State in an unfamiliar locker room, just waiting on the call to resume. Even then, PSU took a lead into the fourth quarter only to lose by a field goal as time expired.
When Washington opened the second half with an impressive TD drive to cut the lead to 7, and again when McSorley was intercepted on a deflected ball in the red zone early in the fourth quarter, it seemed like this could be another instance of Penn State failing to put away an opponent. Ultimately, the defense was up to the challenge of holding the lead despite a minus-3 turnover margin until Washington’s desperation lateral in the final seconds. However, when you’re moving the ball as well as the Nittany Lions were, and generating constant pressure on the opposing quarterback, it would be nice to not have to sweat out the final 45 seconds of a win.
What it Means for 2018:
Returning to the topic of how close Penn State was to being undefeated this year, they did so facing the toughest possible B1G schedule where they had to face Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State, all on the road. They didn’t have the benefit of hosting their toughest opponents, other than Michigan, who was nowhere near as good as their ranking without Wilton Speight when Penn State blew them out in October. That changes in 2018, as they face their two formidable B1G West crossovers, Wisconsin and Iowa at home, and the only road game versus a bowl team is against Michigan (they had 4 such this year).
It’s not entirely rosy, as they will be without three key offensive skill position players in Barkley, Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki, and defensively lose their top 4 tacklers in linebackers Brandon Smith and Jason Cabinda, and safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke. Given the recruiting classes and on-field product of the last few years, it would be naïve to expect a serious falloff. Franklin has taken this program to the level of repeat-and-replace instead of any type of rebuild with a down year of development. With the schedule tilt and abundance of talent, they could easily be next year’s version of Oklahoma led by a star senior quarterback to the College Football Playoff.
Penn State Shows The Heart Of A Champion In Iowa City
Penn State went to Iowa City, stared down defeat and didn’t blink. Teams that end up playing for the championships often have to go through one or more defining games like Saturday’s to reach the ultimate pinnacle, and the Nittany Lions got through the fire with the biggest of goals still alive.
I don’t know if Saturday’s instant classic in Iowa City is going to mean a more than a hill of beans to Penn State when it’s all said and done, but there’s a good chance it will. You can point to almost any team that goes through a championship run, and there’s more than likely at least one game in which adversity strikes, putting dreams and goals in serious jeopardy.
— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) September 25, 2017
NC State put a scare in Clemson last year. In 2015, Alabama dodged a checkerboard bullet in a close one with Tennessee. Ditto for Ohio State who lost to Virginia Tech in 2014 and also needed double OT to beat Penn State on the road.
Ah, Penn State. That’s where we pick up this little story.
Make no mistake about it, Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley and company dominated the game in Iowa City, but here we were late in the fourth quarter, and thanks to an Iowa team that fought like crazy to hang around, the game was in doubt. When Iowa running back Akrum Wadley found a seam through the left side of the line and down the sideline to pay dirt with just 1:42 left, Iowa finally wrangled away the lead, and potentially the game. The score stood at 19-15.
It all happened despite the human highlight, Saquon Barkley coming out of a telephone booth to make no less than five sick plays that cemented his status as the Heisman front-runner.
— Chat Sports (@ChatSports) September 24, 2017
A loss on the road wouldn’t have completely dashed the hopes of a Big Ten title and College Football Playoff appearance for Penn State, but it would have made the margin for error razor thin with many big tests against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and potentially the Big Ten West champion in Indy still to go.
But it didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter because Penn State did what championship ball clubs do. It took possession with the sands of the hourglass running out and everything on the line, and moved the ball efficiently down the field. It did it against a defense that had given up yards but stiffened when it really mattered.
Then, somehow, someway, with just :04 left when everything mattered the most, Trace McSorley delivered a throw off the back foot on fourth and goal from the seven, through a mass of arms and bodies, and into the hands of wide receiver Juwan Johnson for a walk-off game winner. The game will likely be replayed on BTN, ESPN Classic and many DVRs in and around Penn State fan households for years to come.
— Souf Sil Fa Lil (@Nicktheegr8) September 24, 2017
And say what you will about breaks, bounces of the ball, luck or whatever else you want to call it. Teams cut out of championship cloth are the ones that always seem to be on the right side of the inches game, and make their own breaks and bounces.
And it happened Saturday night for the team wearing the Plane Jane uniforms that are as timeless as the game itself.
So off we go, onto the next chapter in this season that could prove to be a very special one for Penn State. After all, it’s got superhuman running back Saquon Barkley and a supporting cast that can move the ball on anyone. It’s also got a defense that looks to be much more improved over the version from last year.
This is a complete team, or so it appears four games into the season.
More importantly though, because of what we saw in Iowa City, it appears to have the hear of a champion that believes it can win with the chips down and the stakes all in. This team is good enough to win it all, and thanks to the clutch 65 yard drive that sent Hawkeye fans home in despair, there’s still plenty to play for.
They are … Penn State.
Phil Harrison is a contributor to Talking10 and the featured Big Ten writer for Collegefootballnews.com. You can get his analysis and opinion all year long on Talking10.com. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB
Pitt at Penn State Preview: Can Nittany Lions return the favor from 2016?
Penn State hosts Pitt for first time in 18 years, but can it avenge an early season loss from last year or will Narduzzi’s bunch do it again to PSU?
When:Sat. Sept. 9; 3:30pm ET
Where:University Park, Pa.; Beaver Stadium (106,572)
All-Time Series: PSU leads 50-43-4
Last Meeting: Pitt won, 42-39 (2016)
Line: Penn State (-21)
This was a series that held major weight in college football for a long time. But, a huge hiatus made many around the country forget about its importance. That’s all back in the 2017 version of the Keystone State clash, and 2016 has everything to do with it.
Pitt took down Penn State in a bit of a stunner early on in 2016, but the Nittany Lions went on to win the Big Ten title and go to the Rose Bowl. Now the Nittany Lions come in to this game against the Panthers hoping for a measure of revenge, but also to show they belong on top of the Big Ten as well.
A 52-0 win over Akron in Week 1 helped, meanwhile the visiting Panthers eeked out a 28-21 decision over FCS opponent, Youngstown State.
This matchup appears to be much different in terms of where the Nittany Lions and Panthers are as programs in 2017. Will that matter at all though? Let’s take a look inside the contest
1 Burning Question: Which coach has the right tact about the ‘rivalry’?
One thing is clear, Penn State head coach James Franklin and Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi approach this game and its significance in a very different fashion.
Narduzzi is embracing this game as a big rivalry for his team and saying it publicly, while Franklin is only putting emphasis on it because it is the game on the schedule this week. You literally can’t get more divergent in thought processes and attitudes towards this game.
“I know it’s a rivalry game for us. Some people think it’s a rivalry game, some people don’t. It doesn’t matter what they think, it just matters what we think. If we think it is, then it is for us and it doesn’t have to be for them. Everybody has different rivalries.”
Let’s just say he isn’t one to shy away from speaking his mind. Meanwhile, Franklin has danced around embracing any rivalry talk according to that same Penn Live article.
“I understand the significance of this game and the importance of this game, but I’m also a huge believer that this is the most important game on our schedule because it’s the one this week,” Franklin said. “This week, the Pitt game is the most important game in the universe. I don’t want people to take what I’m saying the wrong way. This is the Super Bowl for us, because it’s the game we play Saturday.”
Franklin seems to want to downplay talk of a rivalry, and maybe it is part of his “one game at a time” mantra that he’s espoused ever since arriving in Happy Valley, but would it kill him to just embrace the game for what it is and say it?
Is anyone buying this schtick anymore? Honest question.
Should Pitt win in Happy Valley, would that be enough for Franklin to believe this game takes on some more importance going forward? Or will Narduzzi’s willingness to embrace the rivalry talk fall on deaf ears in year two?
Either way, we’re about to find out some major answers for both programs.
2 Key Stats:
200: Both Penn State and Pitt rushed for over 200 yards on the ground in Week 1 wins.
Could it be that the first team to 200 yards rushing as a team wins in Happy Valley? It very well could, espcially given Penn State’s stud of a running back in Saquon Barkley and Pitt’s reliance on the run game while it develops something at running back. The easy money is on Penn State having the advantage, especially on defense, as they gave up just 73 yards to Akron. Meanwhile, Pitt let Youngstown State go for over 100 yards on just 26 carries as a team.
2: That is the number of wins Pitt had last season over top 5 opponents.
Why should 2016 matter given where these two teams stand in 2017? Well, this number matters because it illustrates that you can’t take Pitt lightly if you are Penn State. While some in the fanbase see last season’s loss to the Panthers as a fluke, that team went on to own wins over eventual national champion, Clemson, and the eventual No. 5 team in the country Penn State. Sure, these teams are different, but Pat Narduzzi’s bunch may be closer to nationally competitive than they showed in the opener against Youngstown State.
3 Players to Watch:
Max Browne, QB (Pitt): Pitt is entering a critical season for head coach Pat Narduzzi and the offense is now in the hands of former USC quarterback Max Browne. He transferred this offseason as a graduate transfer and if Pitt wants to make strides to become a true contender, he’s got to be the answer. There are plenty of questions as to whether that is really the case after Week 1. I mean, he only had 140 yards and a touchdown. The good news is he completed 70 percent of his passes, now let’s see if the offense, and Browne, can grow together against a really good FBS defense.
Quadree Henderson, WR (Pitt): If you want to know who is winning this game on Saturday, may we suggest finding what Henderson is doing on the stat sheet. He’s not only one of the most dangerous return men in CFB, Henderson is as dangerous as they come with the ball in his hands. Case in point last week — Henderson touched the ball 10 times on offense and nine of them came as a running play. He put up 77 yards rushing and had one catch as well. The goal has been more touches as a receiver, but if Penn State wants to win, the defense and special teams have to contain Henderson.
Mike Gesicki, TE (Penn State): Almost all that was said about Henderson could apply to Mike Gesicki and Penn State’s chances of winning this game. Everyone knows that stopping Saquon Barkley is priority No. 1, but what makes that focus deadly is the McSorely to Gesicki combination in the pass game. He’s a perfect foil for the play-action pass game due to his ability to get open in space and be a physical receiver as well. If Penn State is winning, Gesicki’s name is likely at or near the top of the stat sheet as well.
What everyone seems to be missing heading in to this game is the disparity that exists between Penn State and Pitt’s rushing attacks. With a rebuilding ground game for Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers, Penn State should be able to take full advantage on defense as well as offensively. Saquon Barkley may not be as efficient as he was last weekend, but he’ll get in the end zone a few times and seal up this victory early in the third quarter.
Penn State 49, Pitt 17
*all stats are from CFBstats.com unless otherwise noted.
Top 25 Players in the Big Ten for 2017: No’s. 5-1
Our preseason Top 25 players in the Big Ten list comes to its conclusion. Who took the top spot and did anyone surprise inside the top 5?
It is almost time for pads to start popping and helmets to start cracking together…and that means football season is right around the corner. Here at talking10 it also means the release of our annual Big Ten Preseason Top 25 Players list.
We’ve reached the end of the road here and that means some of the best players we’re likely to see in the Big Ten for 2017. Consider these the ones to watch and the ones that will likely have a major impact on what happens to the Big Ten title race.
So who are those players? Let’s find out together.
No. 5. — Troy Fumagalli, TE (Wisconsin)
2016 Season Stats: 47 receptions, 580 yards, 2 TD’s
Best Game: Cotton Bowl vs. Western Michigan – 6 receptions, 83 yards, 1 TD
Fumagalli came in to 2016 as a complete unknown. He opened eyes with a 7-reception, 100-yard day in the opener against LSU. In between he managed to become one of the key components to Wisconsin’s passing game and was easily the favorite target of freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
His monster start was bookended with a huge effort to help the Badgers win the Cotton Bowl over Western Michigan. There are few tight ends with as sure of hands and as important to keeping drives alive as Fumagalli. Perhaps most impressive? Everyone knew to cover him and he’d still make the big play.
No. 4. — Josey Jewell, LB (Iowa)
2016 Season Stats: 124 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 9 pass breakups, 5 QB hurries
Best Game: vs. Northwestern – 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sack
Perhaps no player on this list better embodies the spirit and mentality of his team than Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell. He’s a tough customer and a no-frills player who does his job to a very high level. After racking up 126 tackles his sophomore season, Jewell repeated the effort with 124 last season.
Let’s just say he wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and plenty of opposing running backs found that out the hard way in 2016. In a conference loaded with quality linebackers, Jewell may be the most stable and least talked about of the bunch. He’s also the most productive, and that gets him top billing amongst all defensive players in the B1G.
No. 3. — Trace McSorley, QB (Penn State)
2016 Season Stats: 57.9 comp. %, 3,614 yards, 29 TD’s, 8 INT’s; 365 yards, 7 TD’s rushing
Best Game: vs. Wisconsin (B1G Championship) – 71 comp %, 384 yards, 4 TD’s
One of Penn State’s biggest question marks last season was how the QB situation would unfold with a new coordinator and a QB who had never taken a collegiate snap starting. The answer was that Trace McSorley and coordinator Joe Moorhead were a match made in heaven.
He’s the perfect blend of arm talent, mental toughness and athleticism to run Moorhead’s scheme. Few question if McSorley can lead this team back to a Big Ten title after a surprising title run last season. I mean, he did throw for 3,600 yards and a cool 29 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
No. 2. — Justin Jackson, RB (Northwestern)
2016 Season Stats: 298 carries, 1,524 yards, 5.1 avg., 11 TD’s; 35 receptions, 219 yards
Best Game: vs. Pitt (Pinstripe Bowl) – 32 carries, 224 yards, 3 TD’s
Jackson drew 2 of the 4 first place votes available and the internal debate was a big one between the obvious top choices on this list. Jackson topped the rushing list in the Big Ten last year in both total yards and yards per game.
He’s also rushed for 1,000 yards for three-straight seasons and could be in line to break all sorts of school and conference records this season. All of it while not really having the hype machine turned on much. He’s just not a flashy back, but will kill you with speed and power along with patience.
Picking between Jackson and our No. 1 player on the list may just be a preference on style over production and you can’t go wrong either way.
No. 1. — Saquon Barkley, RB (Penn State)
2016 Season Stats: 272 carries, 1,496 yards, 18 TD’s; 28 receptions, 402 yards, 4 TD’s
Best Game: @ Purdue – 18 carries, 207 yards, 2 TD’s; 3 receptions, 70 yards
It is only fitting that the conference everyone associates with running backs has a running back at the top of the list. Saquon Barkley may not only be the best running back in the B1G, he is likely the best running back in the country.
Again, like Jackson, he received two first place votes in our polling, but received second place nods from the other voters to race out to the lead. Few backs in college football area as difficult to bring down as Barkley is due to his shiftiness and his ability to hurdle defenders on a dime.
He’s as close to a human highlight reel at running back as we have in the modern game, and don’t be surprised to see him in the mix for the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season if he can replicate what happened last season.
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