Nearly a year after Penn State’s football season ended with crushing disappointment in the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions closed the book on 2017 on a positive note and entered the off-season feeling a lot better about themselves.
The Lions have back-to-back 11-win seasons in the book. Their two defeats this season came by one point at Ohio State, a game they led for 57 minutes, 57 seconds; and by three points at Michigan State, a field goal on the game’s last play.
What probably made head coach James Franklin the most pleased about this season was the fact that, to use one of his favorite descriptions, “Everyone was pulling the rope in the same direction.”
“I think this is a team that believes in themselves,” Franklin said after the Nittany Lions wrapped up their season with a 35-28 Fiesta Bowl win over Washington.
“You look at our season, there were some ups and downs and twists and turns and adversity. But these guys never stopped believing in one another. I think that confidence comes from how hard they’ve worked and how hard they prepared and how much they’ve sacrificed to get to this point.
“They believe in each other. The coaches believe in them in more ways than just football. And I think that’s what you see on the field. You watch us play. We play an exciting brand of football. The guys love playing together. The coaches love watching them play. It’s a party.”
So, if you believe that every year introduces a new team with new challenges, the party this year is over. Here’s a peek ahead to next year.
Trace McSorley's team: This is Trace McSorley’s team now.
With Saquon Barkley moving on to the NFL with a roomful of trophies and accolades, quarterback Trace McSorley takes over as the focal point of the offense.
Then again, maybe he has been all along. The consensus has been that Barkley was the Lions’ best player but McSorley was their most valuable.
The numbers are stunning. In two years as a starter, the redshirt junior has compiled a 22-5 record. He has started all 27 games and has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of them. He has passed for 7,184 yards and 57 touchdowns, and has rushed for 18 TDs. He improved his completion percentage this season to 66.1 percent.
And he’s tough. He never has missed a snap in the last two years when the outcome of the game was still in doubt. In the first quarter of Saturday’s game, he slid after a run but Washington’s Ezekial Turner delivered a blow to the back of his head as he was going down. McSorley stayed down for close to 10 seconds, then popped back up and continued.
McSorley indicated in pre-bowl interviews that he wasn’t thinking about the NFL, although he admitted “obviously that’s kind of the dream.” His size, 6-feet and 195 pounds, doesn’t match up with the pro scouts’ beliefs about how big a quarterback must be but one would think his intangibles – like a 12-for-12 performance on third down in the Fiesta Bowl – have to be considered.
“The only thing that really matters to me is to have success here and then approach that when I get to that spot,” he said. “Right now, I’m focused on Washington, and then the off-season focused on getting better for next season.”
Who replaces Barkley? The heir to Barkley is 5-foot-11, 215-pound Miles Sanders, who will be a junior next season. Sanders was the nation’s No. 1 high school running back when Penn State signed him out of Woodland Hills High School in Pittsburgh in 2016.
With Barkley rarely taking a breather, Sanders hasn’t seen much playing time. He did match a career high with six carries in the Fiesta Bowl, good for 15 yards. But Barkley is a big fan of his, and has told him on more than one occasion, “Don’t break all my records.”
That’s not likely to happen but Sanders does have that combination of size, speed and vision that will serve him well in the up-tempo offense.
With Andre Robinson having left the program to transfer, the Lions’ top running back recruit in 2018, Ricky Slade of Woodbridge, Va., will get a chance to be part of the rotation.
Filling holes on defense: The Nittany Lions need to replace the starters at eight positions on defense – the entire secondary, both defensive tackles and two linebackers.
Probably the most visible battle will come at middle linebacker, where Jason Cabinda finished up an outstanding career after three years as a starter. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry said a number of candidates will audition for the job, including Harrisburg’s Micah Parsons, the program’s top 2018 recruit.
Junior John Reid, the St. Joseph’s Prep product who missed the entire season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in spring practice, will return to the field at cornerback where he will team with Amani Oruwariye, who led the team with four interceptions.
Will Tommy Stevens stay? Stevens played running back and wide receiver for much of the season but only played quarterback, his primary position, in special offensive packages or in mop-up roles. Looking at another season of playing behind McSorley, and scheduled to receive his degree in May, Stevens could be looking to transfer.
Should he transfer after graduating, he would not have to sit out a season, and would have two years of eligibility remaining.
Still, Stevens played the role of ultimate teammate, doing well in whatever the coaches asked him to do. In addition to throwing three touchdown passes, he rushed for four scores and caught a pair of TDs this season.
NFL prospects: In addition to Barkley, who is rated in the top five on many draft boards, the Nittany Lions are expected to have two players who could go as high as the third round – tight end Mike Gesicki and free safety Marcus Allen. Seniors expected to be drafted in the lower rounds are wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton and guard Brendan Mahon.
Recruiting: Franklin and his staff signed 21 high school players to national letters of intent on Dec. 20, the new early-signing day in college football. The Nittany Lions’ class of 2018 received a No. 4 ranking by Rivals, 247Sports and ESPN.
In addition to Parsons, a consensus five-star pick, Slade and wide receiver Justin Shorter of Monmouth Junction, N.J., received a five-star rating by at least one recruiting service.
For as well as they did, however, the Lions continued to trail Ohio State, which was a consensus No. 2 in the team rankings. For as much as Penn State continues to challenge the Buckeyes’ supremacy in recruiting and on the football field, winning the Big Ten championship in 2016, Ohio State remains the big dog in the Big Ten.
Next season’s schedule: The Big Ten rotation means Penn State will play five conference games at home in 2018, including Ohio State (Sept. 29) and Michigan State (Oct. 13). Two other bowl teams, Iowa (Oct. 27) and Wisconsin (Nov. 10) will visit Beaver Stadium.
The Lions’ other crossover game will be at Illinois on Sept. 21, their first-ever Friday night conference game.
The third installment of the current Pittsburgh rivalry will be Sept. 8 at Heinz Field, one week after the Lions open their 2018 season at home versus Appalachian State.