Midseason report card
Before getting into the midseason report card, I want to note that Sunday’s opening point spread for this week’s home game against No. 2 Ohio State had Penn State as a 20-point underdog.
That’s believed to be the largest underdog line ever at Beaver Stadium for the Nittany Lions, who are 4-2 and riding a two-game winning streak, yet still are viewed by Vegas as being far inferior to the Buckeyes.
The Lions already lost to Michigan, 49-10, and if they’re blown out by Ohio State as well, it will show just how much work the program still has to do to catch up to the Big Ten East elite.
I don’t point this out to be negative toward PSU, only to be realistic that no matter what the Lions are doing or will do in the future against other decent or bad teams, they should always be judged by how close they are to being able to beat Ohio State and Michigan.
Now, on to the first-half review.
Penn State picked up two good wins the past two weeks to reach the bye week at 4-2, pretty much where most people thought the Lions would be at this point.
As with anything in sports, the only thing that matters is winning or losing, not necessarily how a team gets there. In some ways, Penn State has played better than 4-2 would indicate, but then again, in other key ways the 4-2 record is a bit deceiving because the Lions have gotten away with a lot of mistakes.
Penn State easily could be 5-1 had DaeSean Hamilton caught the pass late against Pitt. Or if Trace McSorley wouldn’t have tried to force the ball into the end zone for an interception, PSU might have kicked a tying field goal and, having all the momentum, still won in overtime.
On the other hand, Penn State’s defense has been shredded on the ground this season. The Lions were dominated for much of the game against Minnesota and very easily could have lost if not for the Gophers’ mistakes.
Here are my midseason grades for every part of the team, plus some accolades.
McSorley is the primary reason the Lions are 4-2, having brought them back against Minnesota and then running the ball so well that it finally opened things up for Saquon Barkley against Maryland. Barkley is the best player on offense and will always get the hype. But how can you not love the poise, leadership and determination of McSorley, who’s among the Big Ten leaders total offense with 1,622 yards? As he continues to gain experience in Joe Moorhead’s offense and masters when to run versus hand it off, McSorley will become a major thorn in the side for defenses. His interception late at Pitt, on first down, was inexcusable.
Running backs: B-
Barkley had 105 yards against Kent State, but 85 was his most the next four games as defenses continued to load the box. He admittedly said he was trying to do too much and break long runs, but in reality, he never had much chance on most of his carries as defenders busted through the O-line and buried him at the point of attack on many runs. The 25-yard TD in OT to beat Minnesota showed how good he is at staying focused despite having a tough day, then he had a huge game with 202 yards against a Maryland defense that had a terrible game plan as it decided not to load the box. From this view, the coaches have made a mistake not getting the backups more involved so far.
Wide receivers: C+
I struggled more with this grade than any other, and settled on C+ largely because Hamilton’s dropped pass at Pitt pretty much cost PSU the game against its biggest rival. The other knock on the receivers is that they disappeared against Michigan. DeAndre Thompkins has been the team’s biggest surprise. Chris Godwin started off well but has only five catches in the past three games, none against Maryland.
Tight end: B+
Mike Gesicki has been terrific catching the ball, bouncing back from his disastrous 2015 season. He still needs work blocking.
Offensive line: C-
It’s better, no doubt, but still slightly below average. Pass protection has improved significantly, but left tackle Brendan Mahon gave up two huge sacks that led to McSorley fumbles and TDs as PSU fell behind Pitt, 28-7. Run blocking really struggled until the Maryland game, although the line, primarily Mahon, opened things up for Barkley to score the winning TD against Minnesota in overtime. Season-ending injury to right tackle Andrew Nelson could be a big problem.
Easy choice: McSorley. He has made the offense go with Barkley frequently getting stuffed.
Defensive line: D+
Struggles were to be expected after losing three players to the NFL, but PSU ranks 103rd in the country in run defense and was gashed by Michigan and Pitt for more than 300 yards. Minnesota ran for 228, accounting for most of its 31 first downs. Evan Schwan’s huge sack in OT did help beat the Gophers.
In fairness, with all three starters injured, I’m going with an incomplete for now. If I had to pick a grade, it probably would be a D+ because of poor tackling and big yardage allowed in the two losses. A lot is being asked of the fill-ins, who are improving, and it’s hard to put much stock into the Maryland game because the Terps were completely one-dimensional after starting quarterback Perry Hills got hurt. The group should improve substantially if Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell return soon.
The unit was expected to be good and has been, with safety Marcus Allen and cornerback John Reid both having solid seasons to lead the way. Third-stringer Jordan Smith’s interception in the end zone against Minnesota was one of the biggest plays of the season so far.
Tyler Davis hasn’t missed a kick, making all 10 field goals and all 19 PATs. He’s been superb.
Blake Gillikin has solved PSU’s longtime punting problem as the freshman is averaging 42.3 yards. He had a tough game against Maryland and was replaced, but we later learned it was because of an injury.
Allen, who’s finally living up to his potential, had 22 tackles in a game and leads the team with 57 stops.
The Lions were not prepared to play from the outset at Pitt or Michigan. That’s directly on the coaching staff. Franklin made a major mistake not having the players fired up at Pitt, because he should have known that the Panthers were going to treat that game like their Super Bowl. No, in some instances, not every game should be treated just one game at a time, and Franklin learned that lesson the hard way in a game PSU probably should have won. Moorhead is a gigantic improvement over John Donovan, but the offense has sputtered early in games, something Moorhead has to correct and did in the Maryland game. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has done a terrific job dealing with all the injuries and still finding the right pieces to mold together for the two-game winning streak. His enormous test will come this week against Ohio State. Franklin and his staff do get a lot of credit for keeping the players’ spirits up following the 49-10 loss at Michigan so that they could pull off two straight wins.
The Lions are 4-2. In this category, it doesn’t matter how they got there. Following the drubbing at Michigan, this season could have slipped away. It didn’t, and that’s because there are a lot of good players on the team who take a lot of pride in their work, and they weren’t going to get beaten down by that bad loss. The rest of the schedule, outside of Ohio State, is filled with underachieving or flat out bad teams, so there’s still a decent chance for 9-3. Very few figured that was possible three weeks ago.
Cory Giger may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.