By almost any metric, Penn State’s 2017 season should be viewed as a tremendous success for the Nittany Lions. Yet, it feels somewhat unfulfilling at the same time despite heading to the bowl season with a 10-2 record. That is because the bar had been set so high and it seemed Penn state was equipped to clear it.
A dynamic offense that came to life at the end of the 2016 season on its way to winning a Big Ten title and putting on quite a show in the Rose Bowl got the hype train running leading up to the '17 season. Having all of the main pieces back, like running back Saquon Barkley helped. Unfortunately for Penn State, the Nittany Lions were blocked form a return trip to the Big Ten Championship Game and took two costly hits that left them out of the running for an elusive spot in the College Football Playoff.
Offensive MVP: Saquon Barkley, RB
Although Barkley’s Heisman Trophy hype fizzled down the stretch, there was never a doubt which player in a Penn State uniform was the most dangerous one every time he stepped foot on the field. Barkley rushed for 1,134 yards and 16 touchdowns and added 594 receiving yards and three scores. Barkley also was a solid blocker when needed and opposing defenses eventually sold out to stop Barkley at all costs. Regardless of that, he was always capable of breaking a big play at any moment.
Defensive MVP: Jason Cabinda, LB
Few players embodied the heart and soul of the Penn State defense like Cabinda (above, right). The senior linebacker anchored the defense and led the team with 84 tackles this season, with an average of seven per game.
Best Freshman: Shaka Toney, DE
One of the newest members of the defensive front certainly left an impact in his first season with the Nittany Lions. Toney was on the field for 27 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this season, third among defensive ends. In that time, he registered a team-high four sacks (tied with sophomore Shareef Miller).
Best Play of the Season: Trace McSorley’s game-winning pass to Juwan Johnson on last play at Iowa
In the Big Ten opener, Penn State had to grind out a thrilling victory on the road against the Iowa Hawkeyes. A game that was largely one-sided in favor of the Nittany Lions everywhere but on the scoreboard came down to a last-second, fourth-down play to determine the game. McSorley dropped back, got a great block from Saquon Barkley, and tossed over the middle to the back of the end zone to Johnson for the go-ahead touchdown. The win got Penn State off to a solid start to the season by managing to avoid an upset in a stadium that has become known to claim some championship hopes over the years, including Penn State’s and as this season played out, Ohio State’s.
Best Performance by a Player in 2017: Saquon Barkley does it all against Iowa
We’re going right back to Iowa City for Barkley’s best game of the year. Barkley was nearly unstoppable against the Hawkeyes, rushing for 211 yards and a touchdown and catching 12 passes for another 94 receiving yards. It was a monster of a game that included a hurdle over a defender that barely knocked him off course and a game-saving block on the final play of the game to help pull out the win. If the Heisman Trophy were determined by one single game, Barkley’s performance against Iowa would have been worthy of serious consideration.
Best Game (Team Performance): Penn State’s 42-13 win over Michigan
The season-ending 66-3 rout of Maryland would be too obvious an answer considering the box score. But considering the opponent, nothing tops what Penn State did against Michigan. Coming into the game, Michigan’s defense was praised as one of the best in the country, and the Nittany Lions ripped the Wolverines apart with 506 yards of offense with a fairly even split between run and pass. Trace McSorley passed for 282 yards and ran for three touchdowns. Saquon Barkley ran for 108 yards and added 53 receiving yards with a three-touchdown night. The defense frustrated John O’Korn and the Michigan offense all night. And considering how the previous meeting in Ann Arbor in 2016 went down, this was sweet revenge for Penn State.
Defining Moment: Last-second field goal sinks Penn State at Michigan State
A week after not being able to hold on to a lead in the fourth quarter against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions dropped a second-straight game on the road when they played in East Lansing. A game delayed for hours by severe weather saw Penn State’s offense stuck in the mud, but it was a last-second field goal that sunk the Nittany Lions' title hopes for good on the final play of the game.
Biggest Surprise: Not being able to close out an 11-point lead in the final six minutes at Ohio State
Go back to the Rose Bowl at the end of last season, when Penn State failed to protect a double-digit lead against USC before losing on the final play of the game. It was eerily similar in a big road game at Ohio State. Penn State’s defense was picked apart by J.T. Barrett a week before Iowa humiliated him, and the Nittany Lions could not hold on to an 11-point lead with 5:42 to play in the game. For a team that won on the last play at Iowa, the magic seemingly was nowhere to be found in this one.
Biggest Disappointment: Losing two games by a combined four points
Penn State’s season was incredibly close to looking much different this bowl season. Losing two games by a combined four points kept Penn State out of the Big Ten Championship Game and the College Football Playoff. For a team that was No. 2 in the major polls just before the first batch of playoff rankings was revealed, Penn State was never able to fully recover to make a playoff push in a year that became as wide open as any. Playing in the Fiesta Bowl is nice, but a spot in the playoff was painfully close.
Not being able to get Saquon Barkley to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony also was a big disappointment considering he was the betting favorite heading into November.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most Next Season: Mike Gesicki, TE
Saquon Barkley gets most of the attention, as will Trace McSorley, but Gesicki remains as key a member of Penn State’s offense as any. Losing one of the nation’s top tight ends will be a challenge for the offense. Gesicki leads the team with 51 receptions for 501 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns.
Player to Watch in 2018: Miles Sanders, RB
With Saquon Barkley expected to go to the NFL in 2018, Sanders appears to be the next in line to become Penn State’s primary running back. Sanders may not be quite the same player as Barkley has been, but Sanders was the top-ranked running back in the Class of 2016 so he comes with great potential.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: How much changes with the offense under Ricky Rahne?
With Joe Moorhead leaving to become the new head coach at Mississippi State, head coach James Franklin promoted from within to name his new offensive coordinator. Rahne takes on the role, and with that comes a number of questions to sort through. For starters, not having Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki leaves Rahne with two key players to replace (as well as DaeSean Hamilton at receiver). Will Rahne simply try to do everything Moorhead has done, or will he have a unique twist on the offensive style Penn State has adopted?
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.