Penn State football is back.
After years of turmoil and turnover in the program, the Nittany Lions had a big year in 2016, making their first Rose Bowl appearance since 2008 following their first Big Ten Championship since 2008. That Rose Bowl appearance, a 52-49 loss to USC, gave the Nittany Lion offense a chance to shine on a national stage.
Last season, Penn State ranked 18th in the nation in offensive S&P+. They ranked at the top of the Big Ten and 28th in the nation in total yards after racking up 6,056 over the course of the season. The Nittany Lions also boasted the third highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten as they scored 37.6 points per game.
The Penn State offense is built around two dynamic playmakers, quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Following last year’s surprising ascension, there will be many more eyes on State College, and even more so on the offense, during the coming season. With all of the pressure to sustain their success, this team will go as far as those two Heisman candidates can carry it.
This season the Penn State passing attack will be led by redshirt junior Trace McSorley. McSorley started his college career in a time-share with Christian Hackenberg, but took over the starting gig last year and flourished.
As a redshirt sophomore, McSorley led the Big Ten in passing yards, touchdowns, and passer rating with 3,614 yards, 29 TDs, and a 156.9 rating. His yardage was also good enough for 13th in the country. McSorley completed 57.9 percent of his passes, averaged 9.3 yards per attempt, and got picked off eight times. McSorley will be a key for this offense in the fall and in February he was given 20-1 odds to win the Heisman.
McSorley is one of the best in the nation, but he will need his receivers to step up to be truly successful. The biggest departure from last year’s offense is wide receiver Chris Godwin, who was drafted in the third round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Godwin started every game last season and led the team in catches, yards, and touchdown catches. His 982 yards were the third most in the Big Ten, and his 11 touchdowns were the best mark of any Big Ten receiver.
Godwin may be gone, but last year’s second-leading receiver is back. Tight end Mike Gesicki trailed only Godwin in each receiving category last season. He caught 49 passes for 679 yards and scored five times. Gesicki either owns or shares the Penn State single season record for catches, receiving yards, and touchdown catches by a tight end.
Another top returning target will be redshirt senior DaeSean Hamilton. Hamilton started every game but one last season for the Nittany Lions, catching 34 passes for 506 yards and scoring once. The three time Academic All-Big Ten selection has caught at least one pass in 38 of his 40 career games, including a stretch of 34 straight games to open his career.
Another top pass catcher will be running back Saquon Barkley. Last season, Barkley caught 28 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns out of the backfield.
This is one game where it will be difficult for the Hoosiers to get after the quarterback. Last season, the Nittany Lion offensive line only gave up 24 sacks, which was the fifth lowest total in the Big Ten and the 44th lowest total in the country.
The Penn State rushing attack was one of the best in the Big Ten last season. With 2,406 yards as a team, the Nittany Lions ranked third in the conference. Saquon Barkley is the main ground threat for Penn State and a potential top five pick in next year’s NFL draft. Last season, he was one of the best backs in the nation, finishing second in the Big Ten and 14th in the country in rushing yards with 1,496. Barkley averaged 5.5 yards per carry while leading the Big Ten in rushing touchdowns with 18, which was also the seventh highest total in all of college football. Barkley has the capability to break off huge runs such as this 81 yarder against Purdue.
A weakness of the PSU ground game is a lack of depth behind Barkley. No other running back topped 200 yards last season, and that could be a problem if Barkley needs a rest or suffers an injury.
Penn State’s second-leading rusher last season was McSorley. Last season, the dual-threat quarterback carried the ball 146 times for 365 yards and seven scores.
The Nittany Lions should have nothing to worry about when their field goal unit takes the field. Redshirt senior Tyler Davis was Mr. Reliable last season, making 22 of his 24 field goal attempts including three makes from 40 yards out. Most of Davis’ attempts came from between 30 and 39 yards where he made 12 of 14 field goals. The Illinois native also tied the Penn State single-season record for made extra points by making all of his 62 attempts. Davis also owns the Penn State record for most consecutive field goals made with 18.
This game will be the second big test of the IU defense in the upcoming season, coming a month after the opener against Ohio State. The defensive line will be a major key in this matchup, as they’ll not only have to worry about stopping one of the best backs in the country, but also trying to contain a dynamic quarterback. The Hoosiers will have an opportunity to make a lot of noise when they enter Beaver Stadium, but it will take one of their best performances in recent memory to make that happen.