Last Saturday, Penn State fell, in a rather embarrassing fashion, 42-7 to the Michigan Wolverines. The Nittany Lions were vastly outplayed in every facet of play and left all hopes of a third straight New Year’s Six bowl game in Ann Arbor.
While this season could easily be classified as an underachievement for coach James Franklin and company, there are many takeaways moving forward for a Nittany Lions team, which, on paper, still has a lot of potential.
To begin, the Penn State defense, an area which was thought to be a major weakness heading into the season, has held strong and posted impressive performances week in and week out. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry lost a plethora of talent from last season, including seniors Marcus Allen and Grant Haley, who are now playing in the NFL.
This left the Nittany Lions with many big shoes to fill heading into the 2018 campaign.
Despite its inexperience, Penn State is amongst the best defenses in the Big Ten. Pry’s unit leads the conference with 29 sacks and 664 total tackles. This is a part of the Penn State roster expected to only get better heading into 2019.
Current freshman linebacker Micah Parsons leads the team in tackles despite starting his career as a second-stringer, and is expected to have a long tenure in Happy Valley in a quest to reestablish Penn State’s nickname, “Linebacker U.”
Sophomore defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, a staple of the Nittany Lions defensive front, will also be returning next season. Gross-Matos has accumulated a staggering 23 tackles and five sacks over the past three games. He also took home Big Ten defensive player of the week honors against Indiana.
It is clear that Penn State has a young defensive unit poised for success, but what good will that do the Nittany Lions if their offense can’t sustain drives and give them a break?
This was a key factor in Michigan’s domination of Penn State last Saturday. With the Wolverines only up 14-0 at halftime, the Nittany Lions were still realistically in the game. However, the inefficiencies of the offense lead to extreme fatigue on the defensive side of the ball, and thus, the flood gates opened to the tune of three straight touchdown drives for Michigan, putting things well out of commission.
This trend cannot continue should Penn State leave this season behind them.
However, the Penn State offense has shown signs of promise heading into next season. To begin, quarterback play may not see much of a decline. Despite losing Trace McSorley, holder of almost every school record for quarterbacks, Tommy Stevens has looked promising stepping into his first meaningful game action the last two weeks.
With the exception of one poor interception, Stevens has made many accurate throws into tight windows and has also showed his potential as a dual threat. Stevens averaged 4.4 yards per rush in the last two games.
The real key for the Penn State offense will be to cut down on the drops. Several wide receivers who were a key part of the Nittany Lions’ success the past two seasons have noticeably regressed.
Despite the emergence of young talents such as KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth, along with the lingering return of Justin Shorter, the receiving issue may be more of an internal fix. First year receivers coach David Corley will have to take responsibility for the drops which have plagued very capable talents this season and may pay for it with his job.
Regardless, the talent is still there for Penn State next season after what many will describe as a disappointing 2018-2019 campaign. It will be up to the Nittany Lions to grow and mature from their experiences, before launching their own “revenge tour.”
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