Another 2017 Penn State Season Preview

The world was one Penn State football season preview short. But not anymore. Other rightings: WisconsinIowa, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, Nebraska, Northwestern, Rutgers, Maryland.

Every Big Ten program desires a conference championship. Well, maybe not Rutgers — which knows better — or Minnesota — which doesn’t want to presume — or Purdue — which understands that things take time — or Michigan State — which is focused on winning the line of scrimmage, and letting the rest take care of itself…

Very well, a correction: Most Big Ten programs want a conference championship. Only one can be said to need it.

Before last season began, deep psychic wounds still plagued the Penn State fanbase and the convalescence felt, at times, impossible. Admitted to the hospital with horrific burns, its face unrecognizable and its very identity obscured, the program blinked on life support. Conversations, initially about Penn State football, might conclude in two ways: with screaming matches sufficient to a religious disharmony; or in a painful, sickened silence, akin to the grief that follows a relative who’d besmirched the family name.

No fandom in the conference, in the country, in history, had borne what Penn State’s had. Losses are one thing — humiliating losses, neverending streaks of losses, wounded pride. Penn State’s suffering was a force beyond. It was a humiliation, a stripping of identity, the deterioration of a prestige meticulously built.

In the Midwest — or what passes for Midwest in Pennsylvania — one is ill-equipped to contemplate or discuss Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, nor the crimes of those who directly enabled him.

One could not know, then, whether this man Franklin was suited to the task of rehabilitation. In two years, he was a twinned 7-6 season, and 6-10 in the conference. Being charitable, one might have called him dull. He had been relieved of the burden of following a legend only by the interregnum provided by Bill O’Brien, who vowed not to “cut and run” on his players after one year of coaching, and fulfilled that vow by staying for two.

Franklin seemed to be what Steve Jobs once called a “zero.” He was that ugly kid with dorky glasses who carried fifteen-too-many pounds of pudge, whose face one might pass over a thousand times while selecting a kickball team without once contemplating his skill — to say nothing of his inner life!

Such people seem to age in two ways. Either they go on to fulfill the destiny of obscurity that seemed writ upon their faces; or they accomplish something of startling importance, something so great one does not care to admit it to oneself, since it dwarfs one’s own best accomplishments…

Franklin has done the latter. His leadership of Penn State, last year, gave to that riven fanbase a gift so monumental it beggars description. One must try: it gave new memories, new, fresh words in the mouth — that blocked field goal, wow; that never-say-die QB, gee whiz; that Barkley kid, he’s really something — it gave provenance and taste, it drank blood and spoke again of the dead. It reestablished the program, not just as consummate Big Ten — so consummate it could do nothing else with its Cinderella championship but lose spectacularly in the Rose Bowl — but as a thing capable of life after death.

No program needed a trophy or a ring like the people of Happy Valley. Those who journeyed through that dark era not knowing what waited on the other side were rewarded at last with what they needed most: new memories, new words, a new history.

Grafted onto the wounded corpus of Penn State fandom, new flesh has begun to grow. And while the skin shines, betraying that is not altogether natural, still one has found, having skirted the outer realm of death, that one would prefer to live, disfigured but recuperating, and tougher yet for having endured the blaze. And the recovery continues.

 

Best Case Scenario

Eager to prove his many haters wrong, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead calls an aggressive game out of the gate, and poor Akron is made an example, losing 77-14, after McSorley and Juwan Johnson hook up four times in the endzone and Saquon Barkley carries the ball 7 times for 173 yards and 4 TDs. From there, the Nittany Lions clear the savannah, completely overwhelming an Iowa offense still struggling to find consistency, utterly obliterating defensive-minded Indiana, and dramatically outgunning Northwestern. And then into Beaver Stadium walks a group of cocky young Wolverines. Penn Staters remember last year’s spanking all too well, and they set out to embarrass Harbaugh’s boys. But Michigan relishes a matchup with top-10 Penn State, and hangs in there. Unlike 2005 though, this one’s in a bleach-white Beaver Stadium, and it’s Penn State getting the last-second laugh. No rest for the weary lion, a Halloween weekend trip to Columbus looms and will be the only matchup all conference year in which Penn State isn’t favored. The offense puts on a better performance than last year, but it’s the defense that buckles this time around, and JT Barrett slices and dices his way to 150 yards and two scores on the ground, adding the same through the air. Buckeyes win close, but without doubt. Penn State maintains its top-10 ranking and eviscerates its remaining opponents, culminating in Maryland’s first-ever invocation of the mercy rule following a 56-point quarter. As a makeup call for last year’s snub, Penn State steals an at-large playoff bid as an 11-1 squad, and stuns the world by upsetting #1 Alabama, whose coaching staff never prepared for the possibility that Moorhead’s offense really could be that simple. With a shot at the title, Penn State runs into a familiar opponent: the Trojans. Rematches will be big in 2017. The Nittany Lions fight valiantly once again, but McSorley’s third interception (or Barkley’s second fumble) seals a second straight season-ending loss to USC.

 

Worst Case Scenario

Eager to prove his many haters wrong, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead calls a complete game out of the gate, and by complete, we mean he uses all of his plays, formations, wrinkles, and signals, tipping his entire hand and showing every other coach exactly what to expect from Penn State this season. It won’t matter against Pitt or Georgia State, and Kirk Ferentz will forbid his staff from capitalizing on what he still refers to as “inside information,” but defensive guru Tom Allen uses the information to score a signature win for his Hoosiers, kicking off a rough three-game losing streak at home versus Michigan and away against Ohio State. An increasingly depressed Moorhead refuses to concede that his offense was entirely predicated on lobbing the ball up to an insanely talented receiver or handing it off to an insanely talented running back, and starts calling bizarre plays. Barkley attempts more passes than McSorley against Michigan State; Mike Gesicki runs out of the Wildcat formation against Rutgers; Moorhead unveils a bunch wide-receiver formation involving nine receivers, a center, and McSorley against Nebraska. Yet his players are talented enough to carry PSU through to a 9-3 regular season. After a narrow 2-0 win over Maryland in which Moorhead attempts to do away entirely with the center/QB exchange, James Franklin has Moorhead checked into a western Pennsylvania sanatorium, and assumes playcalling duties for the Lions’ Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl dismantling of Georgia. Franklin has 18 Asian Zing wings delivered to Moorhead following the win, raising his spirits enough to begin developing a playbook with a full route tree.

 

Most Likely Case Scenario

Eager to prove his many haters wrong, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead calls a diverse, balanced game out of the gate, dispatching of poor Akron faster than you can say “Are those zippers on their helmets?” Little does Moorhead know, the insecurity that caused him to show more of his offense than he ought gives Urban Meyer’s team of psychological profilers just enough information to determine Penn State’s gameplan. Moorhead sows the seeds of his own destruction–classic tragic hero with a tragic flaw. Not knowing they’re living on borrowed time, the Nittany Lions rack up win after win, taking down Northwestern in Evanston and avenging last year’s blowout against Michigan. And into Columbus Penn State rolls, confident and seemingly prepared, but alas, Urban Meyer proves why he wins on the field, off the field, and in your head. The Buckeyes are ready for everything Penn State tries, snuffing out every draw, sensing every screen, predicting every double move, until an exasperated Moorhead screams into his headset, “It’s like they know what I’m thinking!” They do, Joe. They always do. The Penn State coaching staff spends halftime ripping apart the locker room and all their equipment, frantically searching for bugs rather than making adjustments. So dejected from their loss, the Nittany Lions can’t even get up the next week to face the Spartans, dropping an embarrassing second-straight road game. They get it together for the rest of the season, and Barkley and McSorley both earn invites to New York for the Heisman ceremony. Both lose. With fresh chips on their shoulders, Penn State rallies for one final glory and completely kicks the shit out of its offensive twin, Oklahoma, in the Cotton Bowl.

 

Did You Know?

Penn State played its first football game against Bucknell University in 1881, one year after the last recorded cougar roamed Nittany Mountain. The Penn State players dedicated their shutout victory to the mountain lion’s memory.

 

Fantasy Preview

Quarterback

Trace McSorley is the only true gunslinger in the Big Ten and sits just behind JT Barrett as the #2 overall draft prospect. He won a Big Ten title last year off broken plays and heaving it deep. His success making something from nothing was too consistent to be a fluke, and his go big or go bigger attitude is a fantasy footballer’s delight. Tommy Stevens, the backup QB, is actually the third-leading returning rusher after McSorley and Barkley.

Running Back

On most big boards, Saquon Barkley sits just behind JT Barrett and Trace McSorley as the #3 overall draft prospect. He’s neck-and-neck with Justin Jackson for the title of the league’s best running back, and no shortage of column inches have and will be spent on explaining why he’s the country’s best running back. But in terms of fantasy potential, the roaring Penn State offense gives Barkley a distinct edge over Jackson. Sophomore Miles Sanders came to Happy Valley with a ton of hype, and looked good returning kicks last year. This season, Sanders may take on a greater rushing load to help keep Barkley fresh, and he’ll definitely get mop up duty early in the season. He could be a mid-round option, especially if he returns kicks again.

Wide Receiver

It’s hard to replace Chris Godwin, who made McSorley look good on a lot of “500 dead or alive”  throws last year, but Saeed Blacknall is building on a strong finish and Penn State fans are ecstatic about 6’4 Juwan Johnson’s potential. 18th-year senior DaeSean Hamilton is a solid option, and DeAndre Thompkins apparently showed out in spring practice. Whoever emerges as McSorley’s go-to is likely to finish in the top 20 overall scorers, so choose wisely.

Tight End

There’s no arguing that Mike Gesicki is the league’s tightest end, and he may sneak into the first four rounds.

Kicker

In an offense this good, an average kicker would be a great fantasy option. A great kicker like Tyler Davis is a nittany pig in shit.

Defense

Last year’s Penn State defense dealt with a never-ending string of injuries, especially to the linebackers. And yet, somehow, they cobbled together a functioning unit that beat Ohio State and did just enough to give the offense a chance in most every game. This year, they return six starters, including four-year starting free safety Marcus Allen, who registered more than 100 tackles from the safety spot. Jason Cabinda leads a talented linebacker unit, and Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran share the tackle spots and six of seven letters in their last names. With some good health luck this year, Penn State could start running up the score real quick.

Suggested Viewing

Penn State’s loss to USC in the Rose Bowl

Their win over Ohio State

In which “scientists” pour a bucket of water on Saquon Barkley

Image via Penn State/BY-NC-ND 2.0