This time last year Michigan State was getting primed for a run to the Big Ten Championship and College Football Playoff. This year, it’s Penn State with a deep January run on their minds. We talked to Aaron Yorke of Black Shoe Diaries to get the scoop on the Nittany Lions.
1. Entering the year, Head Coach James Franklin's seat appeared to be pretty hot. What has this season done for the fan base's confidence in Franklin's program?
I’m still perplexed that Franklin was considered to be on the hot seat coming into this season. He was coming off of back-to-back seven-win seasons while dealing with the ongoing effects of the NCAA sanctions that were placed on the program in 2011. Remember, Bill O’Brien won just one more game in his two years at Penn State than Franklin did, and he was considered a savior. At least O’Brien had the benefit of full classes of juniors and seniors that were recruited before the sanctions. Meanwhile, Franklin’s first full classes were freshmen and sophomores in his first two campaigns.
Thanks to seven straight Big Ten wins that were helped along by Franklin’s first recruits evolving into upperclassman, everyone has faith in the former Vanderbilt head coach. The patient ones among us get to say “we told you so,” while the “FIUR FRANKLIN” crowd get to beg for forgiveness. The best part is listening to the rest of the conference talk about how now Penn State is “stuck” with a guy who might win more than nine games with this program for the first time since 2009. Sure, and Ohio State is stuck with Urban Meyer.
2. The team headliner is obviously running back Saquon Barkley. What makes him so special?
Barkley has a special mix of athleticism, lateral agility, and up-the-field burst that makes him so hard to slow down. As Indiana showed in a great defensive performance two weeks ago, the best way to stop Barkley is to penetrate an inexperienced and banged-up offensive line to get to the halfback before he finds the open field. Once he reaches the secondary, Barkley has all the tools to take the ball to the end zone.
3. Quarterback looked like a sore spot coming into the season with the loss of Christian Hackenberg, instead Trace McSorley has put together a great season. What does he bring that Hack didn't?
Even though Penn State fired last year’s offensive coordinator John Donovan and hired Joe Moorhead from his head coaching gig at Fordham, the passing game still looks pretty similar. There are a lot of deep drops and big shots taken down the field. The difference with McSorley is that he reacts to adversity better than Hackenberg did. If his first read isn’t there, he has shown the willingness to throw the ball away or escape the pocket to buy more time. McSorley’s arm isn’t nearly as powerful as Hackenberg’s, but it’s way more accurate on intermediate throws, and that has allowed Penn State to improve its third down conversion rate from 28 percent in 2015 to 32 percent this year. It’s still not good, but this is not an offense designed to move down the field 10 yards at a time.
4. PSU had their own version of MSU's game winning punt-fumble-touchdown against Michigan in 2015, this season against Ohio State. What was that like and what did it do for the team?
It was cathartic, amazing, stupendous, and wonderful, all at the same time. The play you’re referring to, of course, was the field goal blocked by Marcus Allen and returned for a touchdown by Grant Haley. It put Penn State on top against Ohio State late in the fourth quarter of the Lions’ biggest game of the year. Without that play, Penn State probably still has a fine season, but many critics would still be wondering if Franklin can win against a ranked opponent.
5. Statistically, no one jumps off the page defensively. Who are the building blocks and who should Spartan fans keep an eye on?
While this offense is unlike anything Penn State fans have seen before the Franklin era, the defense is quite familiar thanks to a solid front seven led by linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell. Both players battled injuries during the first five games of the season, which led to players like Pitt’s James Conner and Michigan’s De’Veon Smith running unchecked through the Penn State defense. When the linebackers returned to action against Maryland, the rush defense improved in a hurry and we started seeing a much sturdier Nittany Lion front. It also helps that players like defensive tackle Kevin Givens and defensive end Garrett Sickels have made more plays later in the season. Their presence on the defensive line has allowed the Lions to intimidate opposing quarterbacks without blitzing their linebackers too much.
6. With Michigan and Ohio State playing right before (Noon ET), Penn St will know one way or the other if they still have a shot at the Big Ten Title game and, in turn, College Football Playoff before kickoff (3:30 ET). If Michigan wins, do you think it saps motivation? Conversely, if OSU wins do you think PSU plays with more nerves knowing what is at stake?
I’m guessing that Franklin will do his best to remove distractions and that the players won’t know who won the Ohio State game until the Penn State game is over. Week after week, Penn State’s detractors have waited for this team to get high on its own success and fall over, but that hasn’t happened yet. Franklin has done a great job making sure the Lions remain focused on each week’s opponent, and I don’t expect that to change this week.
That said, the Spartans are playing their best football of the season. If they can keep the Lions from making plays down the field and harass the offensive line, there’s a chance for an upset. The good news for Penn State fans is that their team has been fantastic at home this year. I’ll go with a 24-17 Penn State win.