There’s no denying the fact that Penn State’s NCAA punishment has halted the Nittany Lions hopes of being a legitimate contender in the Big Ten for the last few years, but no season exemplified that better than 2015.
Penn State got life back to as normal as possible on and off the football field for the first time in 2015, but the results felt eerily familiar and oh so far away from being a true contender for the Big Ten East division title.
For head coach James Franklin, the results and lack of positive momentum meant change would be afoot in 2016. So, let’s look at how we got to the point of a whole new look to the PSU offense and defensive setups.
Penn State’s biggest problem heading in to the 2015 season was finding consistency in the running game. By the end of the 2015 season that was no longer a problem thanks to Franklin and Co. hitting a recruiting home run and getting Saquon Barkley on campus.
In his debut season, Barkley finished third in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (97.8) while also finishing in the top 5 of rushing yards (1,076) and yards per carry (5.9) in just 11 games of action last season.
Finding that kind of identity with a passing game that experienced plenty of bumps was a huge positive. Without it, Penn State may have been in deep trouble and likely finishing with a losing record instead of the 7-5 regular season it did have.
How do you have a future 2nd round NFL draft pick at quarterback, multiple All-Big Ten caliber pass catchers and still finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten in passing offense and 13th in total offense on the season?
When you have an offensive line that can’t keep your quarterback upright and make him gun shy, that’s how.
Penn State allowed a Big Ten worst 39 sacks last season, which was bad enough to rank 113th in the nation. While the offensive line showed signs of life in the running game, it was dead in pass protection and thus mediocrity reigned on the Nittany Lions’ 2015 season.
If PSU ever wants to be considered a legit Big Ten East division contender, it is going to have to do much better than it did against the top dogs of the division in 2015. The Nittany Lions combined to lose to both Michigan State and Ohio State by a combined 93-26.
Included in that number was a regular season ending 55-16 butt kicking at the hands of Michigan State. While the Spartans would go on to win the Big Ten championship game and make the College Football Playoff, that game (and the Ohio State game) was the blueprint for all that has gone wrong under head coach James Franklin’s leadership.
Despite winning the areal battle for a change, only losing the ground game by 66 yards and the first down battle 24-20, PSU found a way to get crushed. That came courtesy of two costly interceptions and losing two of three fumbles in the contest.
One of those fumbles resulted in a 77-yard return for a touchdown, meanwhile both of Hackenberg’s interceptions resulted in touchdowns for Michigan State’s offense on the very next possessions. Not exactly the look of a team capable of competing with the elite of the division.
What Does 2015 Tell Us About 2016
Simply put, the 2015 season told us that it was time for a change, and that’s exactly what happened. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead comes in having resurrected Fordham’s failing FCS program by reinventing its offense.
Given the struggles of the offensive line and the incredible strain it put on a very good defense at times, this was a smart move for Franklin. It also means it is time for him to put up or ship out in Happy Valley.
That’s especially true after his defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, also left the program (for the Tennessee DC job) in the offseason. He replaced Shoop with an internal hire, Brent Pry, who has been with Franklin since his time at Vanderbilt.
Should these changes not work out any better than the previous regime in place, it could be curtains for a man that PSU shelled out a ton of money for just a few short years ago. Then again, can recruiting wins alone keep him in the big chair inside the football offices?
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