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Penn State Nittany Lions 2017 Preview: State of the offense

Penn State’s offense went from bland to explosive in 2016. What does Joe Moorhead’s crew have in store for us in 2017?

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One of the biggest complaints of the James Franklin era was that Penn State’s offense was bland, boring and hurting the chances for future success. It didn’t take too long for Franklin to also see what the fans and pundits were seeing.

So, last offseason he made a big move and hired Fordham head coach Joe Morehead as his offensive coordinator. The thinking was, if Moorehead could make the Fordham team in to an offensive juggernaut, he should be able to do the same.

Boy was Franklin right, as Penn State’s offense became one of the most explosive in the country, let alone the Big Ten. It jumped up the scoring and passing charts and the run game stayed its steady and explosive self as well.

Preview Posts: Lessons from 2016 |

But, that was last season and now is as good a time as any to look forward to the season ahead. So, let us start with the most surprising unit on this team in 2016 — the offense.

How will the Penn State offense look in the second year under Joe Morehead? Let’s take a look in to the state of the 2017 offense.

Key Players Returning: Trace McSorley, QB; Saquon Barkley, RB; Steven Gonzalez, RG; Mike Gesicki, TE; DaeSean Hamilton, WR
Key Players Gone: Chris Godwin, WR

 

The Good News Is…

This team is going to be absolutely loaded in 2017 on offense. Not only does star running back Saquon Barkley return, but so does star quarterback Trace McSorley. The latter finished last season third in the Big Ten in passing yards per game, while also pouring on 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns to just eight interceptions.

Penn State’s offensive line is largely intact and deeper than ever before. Heck, even the wide receiver group, which lost Chris Godwin appears ready to not miss a beat. What, with names like DaeSean Hamilton, DeAndre Tompkins and Saeed Blacknall all back to catch passes. That doesn’t even include tight end Mike Gesicki, who was second on the team in receptions last season.

The Bad News Is…

All of that talent equals a whole heap of expectations for the Nittany Lions in 2017. How do you top last season? After all, this was a team that scored 37.6 points, rushed for 171.9 yards and passed for 260.7 yards per game en route to a Big Ten championship and a berth in the Rose Bowl.

That team came out of nowhere, especially following some sputtering on both sides of the ball to start the season. It isn’t like the Nittany Lions are going to have an offense that surprises anyone in 2017 at all. A full season of tape on basically the same players means defenses have a big opportunity to get hip to Morehead’s offensive scheme.

We’ll see just how Morehead tweaks things now that he also has his players in place and a full year in the offense for players like McSorley and Barkley. Expecting a repeat at the levels that this offense hit late in the season may be a bit much, but that won’t stop fans or pundits from demanding it to happen and that’s the bad news.

The Good News Is…

Trace McSorley did all of that good work we mentioned earlier in just his first year as a starter at the collegiate level. One year of experience and all but one of his biggest weapons back in the fold and you have the makings of a really dangerous quarterback on your hands.

It is not a stretch to say that Moorhead and McSorley make a really dangerous combination. Part of it is the fact that McSorley fits exactly what Moorhead wants out of his quarterback and the other part is that McSorley is wise behind his experience level. So many times last season we saw him making the smart play, rolling out of the pocket and throwing a ball away or taking yards he could get on the ground instead of going for the spectacular play. That’s how you get to a 29-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio like McSorley did last season.

We all know expectations are going to be high, but if there is a reason to believe those levels can be met, it is because what we saw from McSorley was just a start and not the finish to his career. Big Ten defenses beware…I mean, look at what he did to the B1G’s best in Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game for starters.

Be afraid, be very afraid.

The Bad News Is…

Well, given all that good news above, it is time to nitpick a little bit. While there was a bevy of talent at wide receiver and plenty of receptions to go along, the graduation of Chris Godwin brings up a good question…where are all the touchdowns going to come from in the passing game in 2017?

Godwin took his 59 receptions, 982 yards and 11 touchdowns — all team highs — and bolted for the NFL draft. Gesicki was the next best touchdown option, recording five TD’s to his name. No other receiver recorded more than the three that Saaed Blacknall did, and in fact, all other wide receivers came up with just six touchdowns last season.

That means, explosive plays are going to have to come from someone. But, it isn’t all bad news really, because there are so many options available, and plenty of touchdowns to go around. This one is more of an intriguing situation than a “bad news” situation if you ask me.

What it All Means

It is hard to go in to the 2017 season and not look at Penn State’s offense as the best the Big Ten has to offer. It has the best running back, arguably the best overall quarterback and one of the best overall offensive lines in the league.

Saquon Barkley is likely to challenge for a rushing title in the Big Ten (at a bare minimum), Trace McSorley could be the No. 1 passing threat in the league and he has plenty of weapons around him. That’s all good news given a schedule that features tricky trips to places like Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State (back-to-back weekends).

For the Nittany Lions to win in 2017, this offense needs to not miss a beat from where it ended the 2016 season. Things aren’t going to be as easy as they were last year for the defense and that means it is time for the offense to carry the load from the get-go.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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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?

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When:Sat. Sept. 9; 3:30pm ET
Where:University Park, Pa.; Beaver Stadium (106,572)
TV:ABC
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.

Here’s how Narduzzi put it this week:

“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.

Prediction:

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. 

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talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll

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We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.

It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.

This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:

Andy Coppens@AndyOnFootball

Phil Harrison@PhilHarrisonCFB

Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU

Dave Fitzgerald@BuckeyeFitzy

Zach Worthington@Worthyton

Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?

You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.

But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:

Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?

Takeaways:

  • Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
  • While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
  • It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
  • Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?
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talking10 Pick’Em league has arrived!

Join our staff in a season-long Big Ten predictions challenge! Come on…you know you want to know our picks and beat up on us for bad plays!

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We’ve had fun on the talking10 podcast giving you previews and predictions over the last few seasons. This year we’re turning that up a notch around here.

Yes, you can now play along with us each and every week! Welcome to the talking10 Pick’Em league brought you by Yahoo! Sports.

Each week you’ll hear us make our picks on Wednesday night and filling out our sheets live on the Podcast. You can play alongside all of our staff and shame us as you win or we get to laugh at you as we rise to the top.

This Pick’Em league is free of charge and is for more than just bragging rights. The winner at the end of the season gets a special prize package from us here at talking10. So join up with the following information:

League ID: 3991

Password: Delany17

Finally, please make sure to make your team name your Twitter handle or your first & last name so we have a way to reach out to you once the season is over….if you win!

We dare you to beat us! We double dog dare you!

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Badgers football

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?

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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.

Top 25 List: No’s 25-21 | No’s 20-16 | No’s 15-11 | No. 10-6 |

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.

Don’t forget to follow our staff of Andy Coppens, Phil Harrison, Philip Rossman-Reich and Zach Worthington on Twitter for their breakdowns of the Top 25 and their individual lists.

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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