This Is the Most Well-Rounded Penn State Squad In, Like, A Decade

By Mike Treb on October 8, 2017 at 10:15 am
 Penn State Nittany Lions safety Marcus Allen (2) reacts following a fumble recovery against the Indiana Hoosiers during the third quarter at Beaver Stadium.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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Standing at 6-0 with a bye week before back-to-back clashes with Michigan and Ohio State, the Penn State Nittany Lions are clicking on all sides of the ball: offense, defense, and special teams.

This isn't your uncle's Nittany Lions: a solid-if-unspectacular defense, a road-grading offensive line with a fullback leading the way to glory, and a shaky punter that makes you yelp.

No, the 2017 version of Penn State is the most well-rounded Nittany Lions team in at least a decade, if not longer.

An Offense That Gets Bottled Up on the Ground Still Scores 31 on the Road

It's time to get comfortable that this offense isn't what it was last year, friends. It's better.

Yes, we all want Saquon Barkley to blast for 200 yards on the ground every game from here on out to sew up the Heisman Trophy. He didn't on Saturday (16 carries for 75 yards, including his 53-yard TD gallop), and if it were played two years ago, this game is a solid, crushing, frustrating loss for Penn State. Instead, quarterback Trace McSorley (a cool 25-for-34 for 245 yards, two passing touchdowns, and a rushing score) and his pals in the receiving corps carried the day. Portions of the fanbase have groused about McSorley's perceived ineffectiveness, his "taking a step back" from 2016, and all the Virginia wild man does is come out and have a big performance in the always challenging "Northwestern Nooner," which is an 11 a.m. local-time kick.

Oh, and Tommy Stevens IS A PROBLEM on the ground, in the air and ... with his hands?!

Plus, Joe Moorhead and company still have this guy (even when he's not having a great day or getting a lot of help from the line):

This Defense Is Wildly Entertaining And Stout

Three turnovers, seven tackles for loss -- Saturday's 31-7 win was another reminder that the Nittany Lions have a suffocating defense. To wit:

Last year, Penn State's offense carried the day while the defense fended off an unearthly amount of injuries and inconsistent play in big spots (hello, Rose Bowl). It was basically survive and advance -- if you could.

Thus far in 2017, the D is fierce and could become one of the scariest parts of trying to prep for Penn State. Let that sink in for a moment.

Punting, Coverage and Return Teams Scare Opponents

Irvin Charles, despite a couple of penalties on Saturday, has been a playmaker on punt coverage. And Blake Gillikin, quickly becoming America's Greatest Punter Ever, continues to bomb beautiful rainbows:

Penn State almost dropped a 38-er on Pat Fitzgerald, but alas, the DeAndre Thompkins punt return touchdown was called back on a penalty that didn't even happen on-screen. Thompkins, as he's looked all season, was decisive, smooth and explosive on the would-be touchdown.

Even So!

Mind you, the 2017 Nittany Lions aren't without flaws. What team in college football is flawless, besides the Pittsburgh Panthers???

There are legitimate questions about the efficacy of kicker Tyler Davis -- once a stalwart on field goals -- and what exactly could be done if he continues adding to his seven (!) missed kicks through six games. Close games require crisp execution on the field goal unit (ask 2016 Ohio State), and the games only get harder from here on out for Penn State.

And the right side of the offensive line has been ... odd. Tons of rotations (Hey, Chasz Wright! Hello, Andrew Nelson! Give it a go, Will Fries!) with no true solutions at right tackle. Franklin is a proponent of the phrase "cleaning up" issues, and there's definitely some cleaning up to do on the right side of the line.

That being said, this squad has three strong, talented phases that still can improve. The ceiling has not been met. That's a fun thought for a team that won its 12th straight Big Ten Conference game and moved to 6-0 on Saturday.

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