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-by Daniel Mogollon, Staff Writer; Image: Penn State Nittany Lions Ricky Slade rushes the football. (Image Source: Getty Images)
We continue our Big Ten preview series with the Penn State Nittany Lions:
Origin of Optimism: The Nittany Lions have high-end elite talent. Linebacker Micah Parsons was the No. 5 overall recruit in the class of 2018 (per 247Sports.com’s composite rankings) …not far behind him were wide out Justin Shorter (No. 8) and running back Ricky Slade (No. 27). They are all first-year starters with varying levels of contributions last season (Parsons for example led PSU in tackles), who are expected to have big seasons for the Nittany Lions. Shorter and Slade will join fellow sophomores KJ Hamler (Class of 2017) and Pat Freiermuth, who have already broken through. As a redshirt freshman, Hamler broke Saquon Barkley’s PSU freshman record for all-purpose yards and he averaged 17.95 yards per catch, while Freiermuth led all B1G tight ends with eight touchdowns. Let’s not forget junior defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos who had 20 tackles for loss, including eight sacks. He and Parsons are as good as any one-two punch in the conference.
Cause for Concern: The offense’s downward trajectory. In 2017, Penn State averaged 41.1 PPG (tied for first in the B1G), with 460 YPG (2nd), 6.6 yards per play (2nd), 290 passing YPG (1st), and 153.6 pass efficiency (2nd). Then they lost offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, which was the reason many of us believed their offense would take a step back. It did. Without Moorhead, the Nittany Lions averaged 33.8 PPG (3rd), 423 YPG (5th), 6.1 YPP (tied for 5th), 218.1 PYPG (7th), and 131 pass efficiency (7th). Now, they lose three-year starter Trace McSorley, the most-productive quarterback in PSU history. He’s not only their all-time leader in completions (720), passing yards (9,899), passing touchdowns (77), total offense (11,596), rushing yards by a quarterback (1,697), rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (30), touchdowns responsible for (107), but in wins (31) as well. Without Moorhead and McSorley is Penn State destined to take another step back offensively?
Breakout Player: There are several young and talented candidates on the offensive side of the ball with running back Ricky Slade standing out among the pack. While the depth in the backfield is arguably as good as it’s been under James Franklin, the talented Slade figures to get the bulk of the reps. As a true freshman, Slade averaged 5.7 yards per carry as he rushed for 257 yards and six touchdowns on just 45 carries. Even with Journey Brown and Noah Cain expected to contribute, Slade’s numbers should go way up as he cracks the 1,000-yard mark. He is athletic with excellent vision which should lead to some explosive runs.
X-Factor: Of all the positions the slowest to fully recover from the fallout of lost scholarships has been the offensive line. They have the numbers and depth previous PSU teams have lacked, now the question is how well will they perform? There are three returning starters with talented players like former top-100 recruit redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker ready to step up. If youngsters like Walker and sophomore C.J. Thorpe (competing at right guard) are ready to shine this could be their best O-line in years. They might have to, because their ceilings are higher than most of the returning starters. Franklin singled out the offensive line as a group that needs to “take the next step” and “be more dominant and consistent.” If they can do that, the Nittany Lions have the skill players to make a run in the B1G East.
Schedule: The schedule is manageable with four preseason ranked teams. It’s certainly easier than Michigan’s or Ohio State’s dockets, with a soft out of conference slate (Pittsburgh and Buffalo have season win total projections of six). However, it could be sneaky tough. All of Penn State’s road games—at Maryland (Friday night), Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, and Ohio State—are losable games. Plus, they’re underdog at home against Michigan, who enters the season ranked seventh in the Coaches Poll.
It’s a Disappointing Season If: They continue to regress, especially on offense. After back-to-back top-10 finishes with 11 wins, PSU won nine a year ago. They will not be happy in the valley if they win eight or fewer in 2019.
It’s a Successful Season If: They make progress (especially on offense) and win double-digit games again. That would mean at least one upset against their three B1G East competitors.
Over/Under – 8.5 Wins (O -115/U -105): They have at least four games that I wouldn’t consider an upset if PSU lost, three of which are on the road, the bulk of what is a challenging road slate. A challenge they will be taking on with an inexperienced quarterback and an offensive staff that has a lot to prove. The defense should keep them in some of these games but I expect them to fall short against their toughest foes. James Franklin is 1-4 against Ohio State, 1-4 against Michigan State, and 1-4 against Michigan. Without Joe Moorhead running the offense and Trace McSorley triggering it, it’s hard to imagine the Nittany Lions turning it around against their East rivals this season.
Daniel Mogollon is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America. He is also a voter for the Thorpe and the Rotary Lombardi Award, as well as the Latino Sports MVP Awards.
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