Disappointing losses aside, the Nittany Lions still have a chance at a 10-win season
After two straight trips to New Year's Six bowl games, Penn State took a slight step back on the Big Ten stage this season with three conference losses reducing them to playing in the Citrus Bowl. While most teams would love a shot to play in the Citrus Bowl, Penn State failed to clear the bar they have raised for themselves within the conference this season.
A season that started with questions about offensive stability and an overtime scare with Appalachian State and included back-to-back home losses against Ohio State and Michigan State and a road trip to Ann Arbor that left Penn State battered and bruised still has a chance to end with 10 wins for a third straight season, a feat that has not been accomplished in Happy Valley since 1980-82. What must feel like a bit of a lost season should be taken into a wider perspective though, as there were some moments worth remembering for the Nittany Lions.
Offensive MVP: Trace McSorley, QB
McSorley’s senior season may not have gone quite according to plan and won’t clear the high bar set by previous seasons, but his final season showed how gritty and determined he was as he continued to rewrite the school’s record book. With 2,284 passing yards and 16 touchdowns along with 723 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, McSorley remained a key reason for Penn State’s overall success.
Defensive MVP: Yetur Gross-Matos, DE
One of the true breakout players on the defense was sophomore Gross-Matus. He ended the regular season leading the Nittany Lions with 20.0 tackles for a loss. Gross-Matos finished the season on a bit of a hot streak as he continued to be a defensive force to reckon with.
Best Play of the Season: KJ Hamler Turns on the Jets vs. Ohio State
With a 6-0 lead but backed up near their own end zone on 3rd-and-5 midway through the second quarter against No. 4 Ohio State, Trace McSorley dropped back to his goal line and found rising star Hamler coming across the middle of the field for what looked to be an easy first down. But Hamler had room to turn a first down into something much more as he showed off his speed by pulling away from his defender and found an angle to zip by another Buckeye as he raced 93 yards for a touchdown to give Penn State a 13-0 lead on the Buckeyes.
Best Performance by a Player: Trace McSorley’s Big Day vs. Buckeyes
Because the game ended with a tough loss at home, it may be easy to forget what kind of game McSorley had against Ohio State in late September. He finished with 286 passing yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State, including that 93-yard pass to KJ Hamler, but McSorley also did damage against Ohio State on the ground. McSorley ran for 175 yards for his first career 100-yard rushing game to give Penn State a chance to secure a monster win. The individual performance lost some luster as Ohio State rallied to leave Happy Valley with a win, but this would have been McSorley’s game to push him into the Heisman conversation at the time had the Nittany Lions picked up the win.
Best Game (Team Performance): Penn State Bounces Back vs. Wisconsin
A week after getting blown out by Michigan in Ann Arbor, Penn State returned home for what figured to be a tough battle with Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions turned in one of the finer team performances of the year, especially considering the circumstances. The defense held Wisconsin to just 10 points, seven of which came early in the game on a 71-yard touchdown run by Jonathan Taylor. Taylor did end his day with 185 yards on the ground, but Miles Sanders helped neutralize that with his own solid day with 159 yards and a touchdown. Trace McSorley was clearly the better quarterback completing 19 of 25 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown while Wisconsin struggled in the passing game all afternoon with Penn State recording two interceptions. The Nittany Lions forced two additional turnovers in the game as well. The win helped keep the possibility of playing in a New Year's Six bowl game alive at the time and showed Penn State’s defense wasn’t as bad as the previous week’s result at Michigan suggested.
Defining Moment: Late Touchdown Sinks Penn State vs. Michigan State, Again
Penn State’s loss at home to Ohio State, in which they couldn’t close out a win with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter for the second year in a row against the Buckeyes, was a downer. But the worst possible way to follow that up came two weeks later against Michigan State. After sitting on the Ohio State loss during a bye week, the Nittany Lions came out flat against Michigan State and for the second year in a row against the Spartans, lost in crushing fashion in the final moments. Last year it was a game-winning field goal at the end of the game. This year it was poor defensive coverage in the clutch as Michigan State derailed Penn State’s big aspirations once again.
Biggest Surprise: Offense More of a Project Than Expected
It stood to reason the Penn State offense would not look quite the same as it did the last two seasons. With Joe Moorhead off to coach at Mississippi State and players like Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton off to the NFL, there were some big shoes to fill across the offense. A brief window for a bit of a transition should have been expected but Penn State’s offense never appeared to have the same kind of energy it could have had this season, especially in the first half. Early scores only to go into hibernation until halftime was an all too common scene throughout the season even with a more experienced offensive line and a solid running option in Miles Sanders. A somewhat perplexing lack of Tommy Stevens in the offense was puzzling and when he did get on the field it did not seem to fool opponents.
Biggest Disappointment: Losing to Ohio State and Michigan State in Back-to-Back Games, Again
Before Michigan started drumming the beat to its revenge tour for this season, Penn State’s 2018 season was set up perfectly for its own revenge tour. The only two teams to beat Penn State last year by a combined four points, Ohio State and Michigan State, were coming to Beaver Stadium this season. Penn State had fourth-quarter leads against both this season, just as they did last year, and managed to lose to both late in the game, just like last year. Dropping both revenge games at home in such crushing fashion turned a season that could have had a Big Ten title shot at the very least was once again reduced to rubble before getting midway through the season.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most Next Season: Entire Secondary
Penn State is going to have some new blood taking over on the back end next season with two senior cornerbacks and two senior safeties all set to graduate. That includes Garrett Taylor, Nick Scott and Amani Oruwariye who each have recorded three interceptions this season and John Reid, who picked off two passes in 10 games. It may be difficult to single out one player over another in this spot, so there should be some good competition for starting roles next fall, with sophomore Lamont Wade slated to be one of the players next in line at one spot.
Player to Watch in 2019: Pat Freiermuth, TE
Freiermuth showed some promise as being a key piece of the Penn State offense moving forward. He proved to be a steady option at times and finished the regular season by scoring three touchdowns in the final two games against Rutgers and Maryland. Freiermuth has 24 receptions for 330 yards and seven touchdowns to rank third in receiving yards and first in touchdown catches on the team.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: How Does Penn State Take the Next Step?
After the loss to Ohio State, Penn State head coach James Franklin made a point of saying he was no longer happy running a really good program and is ready to do whatever it takes to become an elite program. Although Penn State appears to be in as solid a shape as it has been for a long time, what exactly will be done this offseason to help get the Nittany Lions get over the hump of being a Big Ten contender to being a College Football Playoff contender? With a new starting quarterback in 2019, will the offense need more time to gel or will things run smoothly out of the gates of the new season?
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. 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.