All this week we preview everything Penn State Nittany Lions football here at talking10. What will the Nittany Lions have in store after a surprising Big Ten championship in 2016?
Well, that’s what we are here to discuss.
We last left off with some bold predictions, but it is time to get back to looking at how the season is really going to go down. As any championship team can tell you, you are only as good as the last man on the roster.
Penn State tested that theory a lot early on in the season in 2016. But, for 2017 that means less surprising names. Nonetheless there are going to be players who make a big impact on the season.
We all know the names of quarterback Trace McSorely and running back Saquon Barkley, those are the easy answers. Last we checked you don’t come here for those kind of answers. So, who do we see as the five players who could have the biggest impact on the 2017 Penn State season?
Let’s take a look.
Saeed Blacknall, WR
Blacknall came to Penn State as the most highly rated prospect in the 2014 class that was signed. He was the No. 22 ranked wide receiver in the class and the No. 3 player in the state of New Jersey. Things haven’t exactly gone to plan since his arrival in Happy Valley. He’s racked up just 33 receptions for 690 yards and five touchdowns in his first three years at Penn State. Last season was his best, with 15 receptions for 337 yards and three touchdowns.
With Chris Godwin off to the NFL, Blacknall needs to pick things up in his final year at Penn State. Luckily, he’s in a passing offense that likes to spread the ball around. He’s got to step up or be a sure-fire bust from the recruiting trail. I mean, he was the head of the class that including Godwin and fellow senior DeAndre Tompkins
Blake Gillikin, P
A punter on the “5 most important players list?” I know what you are thinking, but this is a league where field position battles are still going to matter in a big way and Gillikin is a massive weapon for this team to use.
Gillikin came in and turned around a mediocre at best punting situation in to one of the Big Ten’s best. He finished last season third in punting average at 42.8 yards per punt. With just two seniors ahead of him, he will return as the best punter in the league after just one season. That’s a dangerous and important weapon to have, especially since he was averaging 4.4 punts per game too.
Marcus Allen, DB
Penn State’s defense was good, but it wasn’t great last season. Part of that was due to a rash of injuries to the front seven to start the season. Allen was not an issue at all, ending the season as the leading tackler with 110 tackles. He played well, but having your safety pulling down 100-plus tackles isn’t exactly the best of signs, even if he is playing closer to the line of scrimmage than most.
It shows in the fact that Allen also had 6.0 tackles for loss, but just three passes defensed last year. Penn State could use him back off the line of scrimmage this season. Allen is also hugely important given the lack of overall depth in the secondary and at safety in particular. He was durable last season and must remain so in 2017.
Matt Limegrover, O-line Coach
As amazing as Saquon Barkley was last season, just think of what could’ve happened had he not been boom or bust? Limegrover was brought in prior to last season to replace Herb Hand and was dealt one hell of a hand (pun intended) in 2016. No fewer than nine players saw starts last season, and the hope is the experience breeds quality depth.
Maybe it does, but that will likely come from the knowledge gained on the field and the work that Limegrover does with the group in the offseason. If the Nittany Lions want to take the next step, they must have more consistent and healthy offensive line play plan and simple. That’s why a coach makes this list for me.
Torrence Brown, DE
Plain and simple — Brown has to be more than a run-stuffing defensive end this season. That’s in large part to the boys who did the pass rushing ahead of him heading off to the NFL this past offseason. The departures of Garrett Sickles and Evan Schwan means Brown is the only one with any experience really, and that equates to 6.0 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks.
Not exactly confidence-inspiring stuff, but Brown is experienced and a capable run-stuff as we mentioned before. The combination of need and his experience makes this choice obvious. It doesn’t mean we’re confident Brown is the answer, it just means his development and production are vital to Penn State’s defensive success in 2017.
McSorley powers Penn State past Michigan
Michigan had no answer for Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley en route to blowout win in Happy Valley.
Revenge is a dish best served cold. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Penn State has one of the best creameries in all of the Big Ten, because Penn State were cold as ice (cream) in delivering a revenge-worthy 42-13 victory over Michigan.
Last season Penn State went to Michigan and were throughly trounced. This season, Trace McSorely went nuts and Penn State laid the beatdown on Michigan.
It looked like it was going to be the Saquon Barkley show early on, as he took a wildcat snap and scampered 69 yards to the end zone untouched.
That likely wasn’t how Michigan drew up containing Saquon Barkley or Penn State’s offense. But, it was a sign of things to come and that was good news for Penn State.
It took just 15 carries for Barkley to pile up 108 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the ground.
Barkley had himself a game, but it was McSorley who shined brightest on Penn State’s “white out” night. He finished the night 17 of 26 for 282 yards and one touchdown, one interception.
Of his 282 yards, McSorley hooked up with Barkley for three receptions for 53 yards and a huge touchdown to put the Nittany Lions up 35-13 with a juggling 42-yard touchdown reception.
McSorley put it dead on target and Barkley bobbled an easy catch only to haul it in as he crossed the end zone.
But, the man who threw that pass was also the story of the game due to his legs. McSorley added 76 yards on the ground, but most importantly had three touchdowns rushing.
It was easily McSorley’s best all-around game this season, and it came against the nation’s highest-rated defense.
Consider this game his personal revenge after he laid an egg in Ann Arbor last season. Last season, McSorley had just 121 yards passing and -6 yards rushing in a nearly equal 49-10 loss to the Wolverines
While head coach James Franklin wouldn’t talk at all about revenge, McSorley admitted to that being in the back of his mind following the game.
No matter the motivation, it was exactly the statement McSorley and the Nittany Lions needed to make. Rather than having others help them, PSU owns its own path to a Big Ten championship and likely berth in the College Football Playoff.
Of course, the Nittany Lions are far from finished this season. Dates with both Ohio State and Michigan State the next two weeks will settle things in the East division most likely.
But, the Penn State that put down Michigan soundly on this Saturday night certainly look like the group capable of winning back-to-back Big Ten championships.
Making The Case For Penn State In The College Football Playoff
Just as we all thought at the beginning of the college football season, a team from the East division won the Big Ten Championship. We just had no idea it would be Penn State.
Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. It was supposed to be a three-horse race in the East, but the Nittany Lions found a way to crash the party late and steal the door prize — a Big Ten Championship trophy.
So now let the debate begin on whether Penn State belongs in the four-team College Football “Playoff.” I say let the Nittany Lions in because they deserve it.
The champion of the best conference
— The Buckeye Nut (@TheBuckeyeNut) November 22, 2016
Remember when the Big Ten was the punching bag of the Power Five conferences? No more. Football in the heartland has been the flag-bearer of college football this year. Heck, you had four teams in the College Football Playoff conversation all the way through the final day of the season.
The Big Ten has had these same four teams; Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan in the top eight of the rankings for a few weeks now. They are led by great coaches and great staffs, who have great players.
The defenses are a cut above the rest of the conferences, and the talent level has gone up off the charts. Each week has provided great theater, and Penn State is the last team standing at the end of it all.
Is a playoff really a playoff without the champion of the best conference being excluded?
Penn State and Head-to-head results
There’s not one team out there that has a significantly better win than Penn State. The Nittany Lions beat No. 2 Ohio State back in a fateful night in October. Alabama is No. 1 and unbeaten, so show me a better win?
You add that to the win over Wisconsin and there are now two top ten wins to go along with the conference championship. The Playoff committee has head-to-head and conference championships as two of the main criteria used in determining which teams get into the field and Penn State can check both of them off when compared against Ohio State.
Peaking at the right time
1st it's ok to hate, I'm hateable. 2nd- they 10000% have improved & are in the mix because of it. USC has zero shot, Penn State has a chance https://t.co/xQzcu2aSNh
— David Pollack (@davidpollack47) December 2, 2016
I hate to keep going back to what the CFP Committee has shown us in the past, but that’s mainly what we have to go by in the short two-year history of this little experiment. To that end, the committee has made it known that it likes teams playing well at the end of the year.
That certainly fits the model that Penn State is showing us. It was a slow start with a loss to Pitt and Michigan in a three-week period of time early on, but the Nittany Lions have since rattled off nine-straight wins, including the one we just witnessed in Indianapolis.
This team keeps getting better as the season progresses, and if you are a potential opponent, the most dangerous one is one that has come back with new life and has started to realize its potential.
Strength of schedule
Guess what else the Committee has shown us? That’s right, strength of schedule is rewarded.
We all remember 2014 when Ohio State passed both TCU and Baylor to squeeze into the semi-finals. It had a lot to do with beating Wisconsin 59-0, but it also had a lot to do with a very, very weak schedule for both of the Big Twelve teams.
You don’t have to look very far to see a team that should be worried when comparing opponents with this Penn State team. According to ESPN’s Playoff Picture, Penn State had the 40th toughest schedule. And while the No. 1 strength of schedule belongs to Alabama, Ohio State and Clemson’s are Nos. 29 and 33 respectively.
Now compare that to the Pac-12 champ Washington. The Huskies have looked dominant at times and have one-fewer loss than Penn State, but it also has a schedule ranked No. 55. And while that doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference, when the separation is razor-thin, it could make all the difference in the world.
The bottom line here is that there are basically three teams competing for two spots if you believe that Alabama and Clemson are safe. The three remaining teams (Washington, Ohio State and Penn State) all have resumes that could get them in, and the lone wolf that gets left out is going to have a legitimate beef.
There are simply too many variables that make circular arguments to here to really know what aspect is going to hold more emphasis than the others.
What we do know however is that at Noon tomorrow, we’ll know which team is going to be sending letters of regret and disappointment to the College Football Playoff Committee’s conference center in Grapevine, Texas.
Penn Sate should get just as much consideration as the other teams waiting with bated breath tomorrow.
Phil Harrison is a frequent contributor to talking10.com. He is also a featured contributor to collegefootballews.com, the Student Section and occasionally campusinsiders.com. You can follow him on twitter @PhilHarrisonCFB or email him at email@example.com If that doesn’t work, you can find him in the doghouse at home.
Michigan State Spartans vs. Penn State Nittany Lions, Preview, Predictions & Prognostications
When: Sat. Nov. 26, 2016; Noon ET
Where: Bloomington, IN; Memorial Stadium (52,929)
All-Time Series: Purdue leads 72-40-6
Last Meeting: Indiana won last year 54-36
Line: Indiana (-19)
Michigan State heads to Happy Valley to try and spoiler for the second straight week.
Amazingly enough, both of these teams are on the two opposite ends of the spectrum from where we thought they would be when we kicked this whole thing off in September. It’s Penn State — and not Sparty — that has a shot still alive for a Big Ten Championship birth and potential College Football Playoff appearance.
The Spartans have struggled so badly that there isn’t even a bowl appearance in sight. This will be Michigan State’s last game of 2016. How motivated will it be to ruin a dream season for Penn State, or will reality of almost doing the same to Ohio State result in a letdown?
1 Burning Question: Has this Spartan team improved enough to pull off the shocker?
There is a narrative out there that the Spartans are beginning to find their form from 2015 — albeit late, late in the season. Running back L.J. Scott is running with bad intentions behind an offensive line finding its sea legs, and all of a sudden the defensive line is starting to get pressure more consistently.
There is no doubt that Mark Dantonio still has plenty of talent on the roster, with four and five-star guys still running around in East Lansing. At some point this team has to put it together right? There have been injuries, inconsistent play at quarterback, and a youth movement that has yet to realize its potential.
So, the big question is whether last week was a sign of things coming together, or a series of fortunate events like the weather and cirmcumstances that made things appear as a mirage. We are about to find out Saturday.
2 Key Stats:
— 4. That’s the number of sacks Michigan State had against Ohio State last week. That was after coming into the game with just seven the entire year. So what happened? Was it a case of pass protection not being on the up and up for OSU, or was it more a product of a young defensive line finding out what it takes to go all out every snap? Spartan fans are hoping it’s the latter, while Penn State fans think it is the former. Either way, getting pressure and push up front will be huge in this one. We’re about to find out.
— .317. That’s the third down percentage on the year for the Penn State offense. That’s a highly surprising low percentage for a team still in the running for really big things this year. There’s been improvement throughout the year, but it just goes to show you that the Nittany Lions can’t get too far behind the chains and expect to convert a ton of 3rd and long opportunities. What happens on first down throughout this game is going to be huge for the dynamic of this game. The Spartans can’t let Penn State running back Saquon Barkley get four and five yards a pop.
3 Key Players:
L.J. Scott, Michigan State RB: Scott is finally starting to really assert himself. No. 3 was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school, but coming into the year, there were still doubts. But no longer. Scott has now rushed for over 100 yards in four of the last five games and was simply the best player on the field last week against Ohio State in totaling 236 yards of total offense. If pride is on the line going against Saquon Barkley, expect Scott to show up big in this one. If he does, look out …
Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB: There has been a move towards a running back by committee approach across the conference this year, but not in Happy Valley. Barkley is the clear No. 1 and for good reason. He is a cut above the rest of the backs in the league with his ability to use a combination of power, speed and vision to gain chunks on the ground. He leads the Big Ten in rushing, and if he’s able to get loose early and often against the Spartan defense, it’ll be lights out for the Green and White.
Trace McSorley, Penn State QB: If the Spartan defensive line really has improved and can have success in slowing down Barkley, it’ll leave it up to McSorley to make plays down the field. When you put the tape on from early in the year to now, his growth in decision-making and keeping plays alive is evident. He is now a dangerous weapon in both modes of transportation, and if the Nittany Lions are going to punch their ticket to Indy, it’ll likely be because of his ability to compliment what Barkley will do on the ground.
4 Staff Predictions:
Andy: Penn State 38-17
Dave: Penn State 27-24
Phil H.: Penn State 24-20
Philip R.: Coming
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