Many see the 2016 football season as a critical one for James Franklin and his future as the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. With a new offensive and defensive coordinator in the fold, the first few games of the season certainly were going to be put under a microscope.
Oh, and did we mention a brand new starting quarterback to break in? All of that equals a program that is under a lot of pressure to perform and perform now.
With Big Ten play looming large, how does Penn State stack up? Where is it strong and weak? Let’s take a look at the state of the Nittany Lions program after non-conference play.
The Good News:
This team didn’t go winless against the rest of the state of Pennsylvania. Last season there was a loss to Temple that spoke volumes, and this season PSU found a way to beat the Owls.
Sure, some will question what exactly that win will mean for the Nittany Lions, but the 2015 version of the team would’ve found a way to let that close win slip away. This season, Penn State’s defense found a way to clamp down when needed and bring home a victory.
That is telling, especially given all the turmoil of injuries to the linebackers and other spots on this team. Going 2-1 out of non-conference play is about what everyone was expecting. For a team without a lot of outside expectations for big success, Penn State has a lot to like about where it is given all the factors in play.
The Bad News:
Penn State hasn’t figured out a way to really use its biggest weapons in the best way possible. That could be the byproduct of two new coordinators in the fold, but Penn State’s lack of a run game in non-conference play is concerning going forward.
Sure, Saquon Barkley has done some nice things — rushing for 282 yards and six touchdowns and averaging over 5 yards per carry.
However, as a team Penn State is rushing for just 111.7 yards per game as a team and that is wholly unlike Penn State, even with a new offense in place.
As a team, Penn State’s highest rushing total on the year is just 145 yards (against Kent State). It’s biggest test was a fail, as the Nittany Lions rushed for just 74 yards on 31 carries against Pitt in the second game of the season.
Going in to Big Ten play, that news is not exactly comforting. Penn State is going to need to win ball games in the run game at times, but it hasn’t exactly proved it can really be a counted on part of the game.
Player Who Has Stepped Up: Trace McSorley, QB
A new offense with a brand new quarterback…what could possibly go wrong? Many were expecting low results from Penn State’s new quarterback coming in to the season, but McSorely has beat those expectations and then some.
He is completing 64.4 percent of his passes, has 828 yards and four touchdowns to his name already. With a lot of talent at wide receiver, Penn State has gotten the play out of its quarterback it wished it had in past offenses.
McSorely has been one heck of a revelation for a team that was uncertain about what it had at the position going in to the season. In fact, dare we say that OC Joe Moorehead believes he can rest the success of his offense squarely on the shoulders of McSorely?
We will, and he has. That’s all the testament one needs to just how good of a start to the season McSorely has had.
Player Who Needs to Step Up: Evan Schwan, DE
One could have easily expected a drop-off in production from Penn State’s defensive line in 2016, given the fact that most of last season’s line graduated. However, there has been way too significant of a drop-off in production for the coaching staff and the general public to not notice a difference.
It may be harsh to pick a player who missed one game, but Schwan did miss the Temple game and that should mean better production than we have seen in his two games of action. So far this season he has just four tackles and one sack to his credit.
Penn State does rank third in the Big Ten in sacks, but seven of those 10 came against a really bad Kent State team and that should be troublesome with Big Ten play coming up. It sure would help to see a starter like Schwan step up in the 4-3 scheme that PSU runs.
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