Penn State has won at least 10 games in a season for the third time in the last four seasons under James Franklin. As a show of just how far this program has come under Franklin, those 10 wins are considered by some to be a disappointment given that the Nittany Lions failed to win a Big Ten East Division title and may have missed out on a spot in the College Football Playoff or the Rose Bowl because of it. But, in the grand scheme of things, this season was very much a success for Penn State regardless of what happens in the upcoming Cotton Bowl.
It’s time now to look back on the regular season and pick out the highs and lows of the season that was.
Offensive MVP: Pat Freiermuth, TE
For the second straight season, Freiermuth was Penn State’s second-leading receiver. KJ Hamler may have had more catches and receiving yards, but Freiermuth remained one of the more consistent and dependable options for Sean Clifford when a play needed to be made through the air, especially inside the red zone. His decision to return in 2020 is a big boost for the offense next fall.
Defensive MVP: Micah Parsons, LB
Parsons has followed up a brilliant freshman season with 95 tackles in his sophomore season. Parsons also has a team-high 45 solo stops to go along with 11 tackles for a loss, three sacks, and two forced fumbles as he was named the Big Ten’s linebacker of the year. A chance to be the first Penn State linebacker since 2015 (Jason Cabinda) to record 100 tackles is on the line in the Cotton Bowl.
Best Newcomer: Noah Cain, RB
Cain made a good splash in the running game earlier on in the season. Back-to-back 100-yard rushing games in early October provided a sense of optimism about Cain potentially becoming the main running back before his season was impacted by nagging injury concerns.
Best Play of the Season: KJ Hamler’s 53-yard TD vs. Michigan
Penn State jumped out to a 21-0 lead on Michigan in a big game in the middle of October. But the Wolverines clawed their way back into the game after halftime and were within one score of the Nittany Lions at the start of the fourth quarter. In need of a big play, Sean Clifford found a streaking Hamler for a 53-yard touchdown. The score would prove to be the game-winning tally as Michigan’s rally fell one pass shy of a potential tied game late in the fourth quarter.
Best Performance by a Player: KJ Hamler vs. Michigan
It may be safe to say Hamler’s best performance of the season came in that game against Michigan. He was the big playmaker for a Penn State offense that ambushed a struggling Michigan defense early on, and it did more than enough damage to get the win for the home team. Hamler scored twice in the game and his short run late in the game to pick up key short yardage for a first down allowed Penn State to wrap up the win.
Best Game (Team Performance): 28-7 victory at Michigan State
Penn State had two games with more than 600 yards of offense this season, so 302 yards against Michigan State may not be very impressive at first glance. But considering this was a week after the big emotional win over Michigan and the Spartans have been quite the thorn in the paw of the Nittany Lions the past couple of years, a dominant 28-7 victory in East Lansing to remain undefeated was quite impressive overall.
Defining Moment: Not packing it in against Ohio State
Penn State was thoroughly being controlled by Ohio State after one half of play and starting quarterback Sean Clifford was knocked out of the game in the third quarter. But Penn State’s defense never gave up, created some turnovers and backup quarterback Will Levis provided a spark to fuel a third-quarter rally to make Buckeye faithful at least a little uncomfortable. The effort ultimately ran out of steam, but there have been a number of Penn State teams in that same situation in Columbus that could have seen the game spiral out of control. This game showed there is no quit on the team.
Biggest Surprise: The running back by committee going as long as it did
After a few seasons knowing a guy like Saquon Barkley or Miles Sanders was going to lead the running game, the big question is who would be that guy this season? For a while, Penn State seemed perfectly content to ride with the running back by committee with Journey Brown and Noah Cain leading the charge. Brown ended up being the leading rusher as Cain was slowed down but Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade had some moments as well.
Biggest Disappointment: Not getting into the Rose Bowl
After an 8-0 start to the season, the thought of playing in the Rose Bowl seemed like a real possibility even if it was without the Big Ten title. But Wisconsin’s late surge and a less-than-impressive regular-season finale against Rutgers took enough steam out of the engine to Pasadena for the Nittany Lions and a chance to face Oregon. The Cotton Bowl is nice, but few bowls match the Rose Bowl.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Shaka Toney, DL
One of the main guys on the defensive line has been Toney, who has been a disruptor up front during his career at Penn State. Toney had eight tackles for a loss this season with 6.5 sacks. The good news for Penn State is there are a lot of young players in key spots to minimize the impact of graduating seniors and NFL-bound underclassmen. But Toney will not be easy to replace right away.
Player to Watch in 2020: Noah Cain, RB
As mentioned earlier, Cain made an early splash running the football but got slowed down by injury concerns. Will he be a main contributor to the ground attack next season? Given the glimpses seen this season, you have to figure he will have a role in the offensive plans to come in 2020.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Who will be the new offensive coordinator?
Penn State has a lot to like about the future of the offense given the wealth of young talent, but the departure of an offensive coordinator means there is something that needs to be addressed. Ricky Rahne is heading to Old Dominion to be the head coach, which means James Franklin needs to potentially look outside of the program once again to find a new offensive coordinator. Can he get lucky with another offensive mind like Joe Moorhead? If he does, Penn State could be dangerous next season.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.