2016 season review: Penn State came out of nowhere to win Big Ten
Penn State football
Looking for the surprise team in the Big Ten in 2016? Look no further. The Nittany Lions came out of nowhere to win the Big Ten in James Franklin’s third season in State College.
Expectations were modest for Penn State when the season dawned, as Franklin was just 14-12 overall and 6-10 in the Big Ten his first two seasons. Most felt the program was likely a year away from a breakthrough, as the roster is loaded with younger players.
But Franklin had PSU ahead of schedule, which is why he was tabbed Big Ten Coach of the Year by the media. And he did it with a remade staff that had new offensive (Joe Moorhead) and defensive (Brent Pry) coordinators, along with a new offensive line coach (Matt Limegrover).
It was the offense that made the Nittany Lions go and fueled the program’s first Big Ten title since 2008, as PSU just missed on going to the playoff after finishing No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff poll. Penn State is No. 3 in the Big Ten in scoring (30.3 ppg) and No. 4 in total offense (430.1 ypg). This is one of the hottest teams in America, rallying from a 2-2 start to rip off nine wins in a row and scoring 38 points or more in each of the last six games as it preps to play USC in the Rose Bowl.
Record: 11-2 overall; 8-1 Big Ten/T1st East
Bowl: Rose vs. USC
High point: Beaver Stadium was a powder keg ready to explode when No. 2 Ohio State visited on Oct. 22. It was a prime-time game and a “white out.” And the Nittany Lions delivered one of the program’s biggest wins in recent school history, knocking off the Buckeyes 24-21. And Penn State did it in dramatic fashion, outscoring Ohio State, 17-0, in the fourth quarter and tallying the winning points on a 60-yard blocked field goal return for a TD by Grant Haley. It was Penn State’s first victory vs. a top-five team since 1999 against Arizona; its first against a top-two team since 1990 against No. 1 Notre Dame; its first in Beaver Stadium against a team ranked so high since 1982 against No. 2 Nebraska.
Low point: Penn State waded into Michigan Stadium on Sept. 24 and got trounced, 49-10, by the No. 4 Wolverines. Michigan ran over the Nittany Lions, notching 326 yards rushing. Penn State was at a big disadvantage, as its top three linebackers all were out with injury. And then had another linebacker booted in the second quarter for targeting. Penn State left Ann Arbor 2-2 and wondering what direction it was going. But the Nittany Lions scratched out a 29-26 OT win the next week at home vs. Minnesota. And Penn State has kept on winning.
Offensive MVP: QB Trace McSorley. I know, sophomore RB Saquon Barkley won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Running Back of the Year honors, rushing for 1,302 yards (100.2 ypg). He also won the Silver Football from the Chicago Tribune. But truth be known, McSorley should have been the Big Ten Player of the Year—and he wasn’t even a first-team All-Big Ten choice. He has been a revelation as a sophomore in taking over for Christian Hackenberg. The 6-1, 201-pound McSorley is No. 1 in the Big Ten in passing efficiency, hitting 57 percent of his attempts for 3,360 yards with 25 TDs and five picks. He’s also No. 1 in total offense (285.5 ypg).
Defensive MVP: E Garrett Sickels. A second-team All-Big Ten selection, the 6-4, 260-pound junior has six sacks and 12.5 TFLs and is a force up front for a line that had to replace three starters. Sickels is a big reason why Penn State is No. 2 in the Big Ten in sacks with 39 (3.0 pg).