Penn State feels 'really good' at 2016 halfway point

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
  • Penn State enters the season's midpoint at 4-2.
  • The Nittany Lions have a bye week before taking on Ohio State.
  • Running back Saquon Barkley is the team MVP halfway through the 2016 season.

Penn State  punctuated the season's first half with a 38-14 undoing of Maryland that marked its best victory under James Franklin. The two-game sweep of Minnesota and Maryland helped to ease the sting of a 39-point loss to Michigan and to re-frame the Lions headed into the remaining six games.

Penn State's Saquon Barkley (26) expects to play in Saturday's Big Ten title game.

"We are feeling really good about where we are right now," running back Saquon Barkley said. "Now hopefully, we can keep the momentum going."

How did the first half go for Penn State, which is 4-2 and positioned well for a third consecutive bowl game? Here's a rewind of the top players, moments and questions.

Offensive MVP: Saquon Barkley. The sophomore running back didn't assemble the eye-popping rushing numbers until last week against Maryland (31 carries, 202 yards) but has been instrumental to every game.

He rushed for five touchdowns against Pitt, raced to a game-clinching 55-yard touchdown against Temple and accounted for 71 percent of the offense against Michigan. Barkley is a productive force in the pass game, is blocking better and leads the Big Ten in scoring (nine TDs).

With 582 yards rushing and three of the conference's worst four rushing defenses still to come, Barkley has another 1,000-yard season well within reach.

Defensive MVP: Marcus Allen. Fellow defensive backs Malik Golden and John Reid have been critical to helping an injured defense cope, but Allen has been at the forefront. Beyond leading the team in tackles (57), the safety is the defense's emotional core and most fearsome hitter.

Top newcomer: Blake Gillikin. The freshman has brought demonstrable change to Penn State's punt unit, making it a consistent threat to flip field position. Until punting through an injury last week, Gillikin averaged 43 yards per attempt with five punts longer than 50. He gets hang time, too, limiting returns to less than 10 yards apiece.

Unsung hero: Brandon Smith. Until the Temple game, Smith, a former walk-on, had played three defensive snaps in his nearly four years at Penn State. A week later he was the starting middle linebacker against No. 4 Michigan.

Starting because of injuries, Smith launched himself into the role, even when he was ejected from the Michigan game for a targeting call the Big Ten later called incorrect. In a whirlwind, Smith went from special-teams player to essential linebacker, peaking with a team-high 14 tackles and an interception against Maryland.

Overlooked player: Brendan Mahon. The tackle has been Penn State's best offensive lineman, once even grading among the nation's best this season. After a tough start in pass protection (notably the sack-fumbles against Kent State and Pitt), Mahon has been stellar. And he road-graded a future NFL player on Barkley's overtime touchdown against Minnesota.

Season-changing play: Penn State had nothing going against Minnesota, facing a 10-point deficit with 79 yards of offense early in the second half.

Then quarterback Trace McSorley hit receiver Irvin Charles for an 80-yard touchdown pass that might have flipped the season.

The Lions went on to defeat Minnesota in overtime, then rattled Maryland by 24.

Top story line: Injuries. The past two seasons have been unkind to Penn State regarding injuries, though one position was particularly gutted this year. Seven linebackers have missed playing time, with fifth-year senior Nyeem Wartman-White out for the year.

As a result, the Lions have played two former walk-ons, a true freshman and a converted safety at linebacker. Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell should be back soon, though. Meanwhile, Andrew Nelson's season-ending injury means shuffling on the offensive line.

Best story line: Joey Julius. The country's most famous kicker has become iconic for launching himself into returners. Michigan's Jourdan Lewis called Julius "a nose tackle that can kick." Players from Minnesota and Maryland have been ejected after hitting Julius late.

More importantly, Julius revealed that he sought treatment this past spring for an eating disorder that he said was caused by depression and anxiety. Julius offered help for those facing a similar condition.

Most peculiar story line: James Franklin's hot seat. This became such a national talking point following the Michigan loss that Athletic Director Sandy Barbour conducted two interviews backing the third-year coach. Outsiders claiming that Franklin's job should be in jeopardy don't understand Penn State's complicated situation; fans doing so might have hot-tempered expectations.

Considering where he began, Franklin should get at least four years of his six-year deal simply to mend the foundation.

Biggest progression: Trace McSorley. The quarterback overcame an uneven start (four interceptions and three fumbles through four games) to run a much tighter offense. He blended with Barkley much better in the run game the past two weeks and almost single-handedly lifted Penn State to overtime against Minnesota.

Still an issue: Missing tackles. The Lions certainly don't lack big hitters, but classic wrap-tackling often eludes them. Franklin said that players tackle either too high or not fully to the ground. This was an issue last season, too, and likely a byproduct of the protective "thud" tacking in practice.

Three things to watch:

1. Best-case scenario vs. Ohio State? Show a large group of recruits the lively atmosphere of a night game at Beaver Stadium and the potential to reach the Buckeyes' level in the near future.

2. Road underdogs at Indiana? Penn State won a testy game in Bloomington two years and got drilled there in 2013. This year's Hoosiers held Ohio State to a relatively meager 38 points and beat Michigan State.

3. The future of Beaver Stadium. Penn State this month is expected to release details of its athletics facilities master plan, which will include a stadium overhaul. An expensive one, too.