The 2018 college football season held promise and expectation for Penn State. Although they’d lost Saquon Barkley to the NFL, they returned the mercurial Trace McSorley. Hopes were high for another double digit win season. In his final season with the program, could McSorley guide the Nittany Lions to another BIG 10 Championship like he had in 2016?
The season started out well with four straight wins. A 51-6 romp over eventual ACC Coastal winners, Pitt, was the marquee victory in an easy opening slate. However, a heartbreaking narrow loss to Ohio State derailed the whole campaign. With a two week gap to dwell, the Lions were defeated at home by Michigan State. After two in conference losses, they were on the ropes and were dealt the final blow in the Big House. Michigan’s 42-7 routing left them out of all contention in the BIG 10. Only a Tommy Stevens garbage time touchdown prevented a total blowout.
McSorley’s fairy-tale career with the Lions ended with the Citrus Bowl. It was perhaps fitting that his Penn State story was finished by the fairy-tale team of 2018, University of Kentucky. After being 27-7 down, McSorley strapped the Lions to his back but came up just short in a 27-24 loss. After the defeat, he took a knee in the end zone to honour the Penn State fans.
With that, a new era for Penn State began.
The 2019 season will be a test of how well Penn State can replace some pivotal pieces. Head coach, James Franklin, loses his record setting quarterback, and 6 other players left for the NFL. In addition to that, 2 players entered the transfer portal. They’re not minor parts to replace.
For the last two seasons, the Nittany Lions have had incredible running backs. First Saquon Barkley, then Miles Sanders have led the ground attack, coupled with McSorley’s running capability from the QB spot. For 2019, sophomore Ricky Slade looks set to handle the workload. He had 6 touchdowns in 2018 on a limited number of carries. Freshman Noah Cain, a 4* recruit out of IMG Academy, Florida will be one to watch for the future.
Significant pieces were lost on defence too. Shareef Miller, Amani Oruwariye, and Nick Scott were all lost to the draft. The defensive unit was highly ranked in 2018, averaging just 20.5 points per game, and 23rd out of 130 teams. Senior John Reed, and sophomore safety Jonathan Sutherland, will be expected to lead the secondary.
Three key players to watch…
#14 Sean Clifford – Quarterback
The biggest piece that Penn State will need to replace in 2019 is obviously Trace McSorley. Throughout the winter and in to the spring, the quarterback battle to replace him was the talk of the town. Tommy Stevens was the heir apparent but Sean Clifford was expected to provide competition. It was seemingly a competition Stevens didn’t want any part of, and he entered the transfer portal.
The offence is in capable hands in Clifford. The 4* recruit out of St Xavier High School was an Elite 11 finalist in 2016. He was voted the most accurate passer at that competition. Not only is he accurate with his arm, but he holds the St Xavier record for rushing yards and touchdowns from the quarterback position. Although described as a “Pro Style” quarterback, he does bring that dual-threat that McSorley used to devastating effect.
The Penn State fans got a small glimpse of Clifford last year. They will have loved what they saw of him versus Kent State. His 95 yard touchdown in that game set a Penn State record. He also looked really good in the Spring game, putting balls in to tight windows and showing a good connection with tight end Nate Bowers.
#87 Pat Freiermuth – Tight End
Every young quarterback needs a reliable target. In 2018, the wide receiver group had their fair share of drops that hindered the offence. The same can not be said for their tight end.
Pat Freiermuth will be the go to guy in the Penn State offence. He led the BIG 10 in tight end touchdowns last year. His 8 touchdowns were the most for a Penn State freshman since 2005.
He was voted a Freshman All-American by both 247 sports and ESPN.
At 6’5, and a former basketball star in high school, his size make him the perfect red zone threat. However, he’s more than just that. Freiermuth can be the go to guy anywhere on the field, with 62% of his 2018 receptions resulting in first down.
#99 Yetur Gross-Matos – Defensive End
Shareef Miller may be gone but Gross-Matos is the real production machine on the Nittany Lions defence. He led the team in sacks last year with 8. He also contributed 36 solo tackles and forced two fumbles. I fully expect him to lead the BIG 10 in sacks in 2019. His performances already are earning him first round draft projections. 2019 is only going to fuel those projections.
At nearly 2 metres tall, he is an absolute monster on the field. His size and strength, combined with his speed, are a nightmare for opposition backfields. As he gets older, he’ll only get better, as he hones his skill set as an edge rusher.
Off the field, Gross-Matos has a tragic back story. As a boy, he had to witness the death of both his brother and his biological father. His grief and inability to discuss his loss has been channeled in to sport. It powers his drive to succeed.
2019 Schedule a challenge for Penn State…
The Nittany Lions will look to get off to a quick start, as they did in 2018. They have three, winnable, home games against Idaho, Buffalo, and Pitt. Their first conference game is under the Friday night lights of College Park, Maryland. Question marks still hang over the Maryland program, and despite adding some strong pieces, it is still an easily winnable game for Penn State.
Purdue will provide the first real test of the year when they visit University Park in week 5. Like the Lions, the Boilermakers will have a new face under center and his connection with Rondale Moore will define their season. It will be a tough game, but a winnable one for Penn State.
Then comes a three game stretch that will make or break the 2019 Nittany Lions.
They travel to Iowa on October 12th, entertain Michigan the following week, then go to East Lansing for a revenge game with Michigan State. I actually think the Iowa game could be the toughest on the schedule. The Hawkeyes are going to be THE team to watch in the BIG 10 this year. Penn State can realistically afford only one defeat in these three games if they want to compete for championship honours.
Three of their final four games are easily winnable, with Minnesota, Indiana and the final game of the season against Rutgers.
The second to last game of the season, is the big one. The Ohio State rivalry game. This year, the Nittany Lions make the trip to Columbus, Ohio. They’re two different teams this year. Both have had to replace a number of key talented players. Ohio State are my pick for the Big Ten East and I think they pick up the win here.
For the second consecutive season, a bowl game may be the limit for the Nittany Lions.
Feature Photo Credit: Curtis Chan (Penn State)