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Reviewing the 2017 Penn State Nittany Lions

An improved defense means that Penn State is still a formidable opponent, even if Saquon Barkley isn’t the Heisman shoo-in people thought he was going to be this season.

Rutgers v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Other than a couple of poor second halves against Ohio State and Michigan State, Penn State has performed pretty much as-expected this season. That isn’t necessarily the case with star running back Saquon Barkley, who has only topped the 100 yard mark rushing in three games this season. Barkley has rushed for 899 yards and 11 touchdowns, though he’s also caught 40 passes for 524 yards and another three touchdowns.

Trace McSorley is having a great senior season, completing 65% of his passes for 2,666 yards and 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He’s also rushed for 349 yards and nine more touchdowns. Senior receiver DaeSean Hamilton is Penn State’s big play receiver, catching 39 passes for 646 yards and seven touchdowns; he’s now the all-time leader in career receptions. Tight end Mike Gesicki leads in total catches with 42 for 419 yards and five touchdowns.

Defensively, Penn State ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in every statistical category: 2nd in scoring defense (13.9), 4th in total defense (318.3), 6th in rush defense (123.9) and pass defense (194.4). But the most notable statistic for Penn State is that they lead the Big Ten in turnover margin, with the 22 turnovers gained and just nine turnovers given both lead the conference.

Senior middle linebacker Jason Cabinda leads Linebacker U. with 74 tackles this season; senior safety Marcus Allen is second with 59. Injuries on the defensive line have been a concern as ends Torrence Brown and Ryan Bucholz have been out since September and the Ohio State game respectively. Sophomore Shareef Miller has been Penn State’s most consistent defensive end, leading with eight tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries. Junior weakside linebacker Manny Bowen was suspended last week for a violation of team rules; head coach James Franklin says that Bowen won’t be available this week either. Bowen was third on the team with 51 tackles this season.

He doesn’t start, but cornerback Amani Oruwariye leads Penn State with four interceptions and eight pass breakups. That’s probably because opposing quarterbacks are reluctant to throw anywhere in the vicinity of senior cornerback Grant Haley. By midseason, Haley had only given up three first downs and 10 catches overall this season. Eight more passes had been broken up or been intercepted.

Needless to say, Husker fans aren’t terribly optimistic about this game, and for good reason. Bowl eligibility rests on winning this game, and given the current state of Mike Riley’s program, that seems unrealistic.

After the jump, the preseason preview of Penn State.

It’s not often that a team loses their all-time leading passer to the NFL...and gets much better. But that’s exactly what happened to Penn State. Christian Hackenberg was an elite quarterback prospect that seemed to have NFL written all over him even in high school. But after a decent freshman season, he seemingly regressed as a sophomore and junior. He declared for the NFL anyway and has been, well, somewhat less than impressive so far this preseason. Sometimes evaluations of players from drills and practice simply don’t translate during games.

After three straight seven-win seasons under Hackenberg, Trace McSorley (6’0” 204 lbs.) led Penn State to a Big Ten title and a berth in the Rose Bowl as a sophomore. Last season, McSorley completed 58% of his passes for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns with eight interceptions; the yards and touchdown marks becoming single-season school records for Penn State. The dual-threat quarterback also rushed for 365 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors. McSorley will be backed up by sophomore Tommy Stevens (6’4” 224 lbs.), who rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns as a backup. His 9.4 yards per carry average on 21 carries wasn’t based on one long run; he had runs of 18, 31 and 45 yards last season. He also completed two of three passes for 36 yards.

But the real beast of the Penn State offense is junior running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley (5’11” 228 lbs.) rushed for 1,076 yards as a freshman, then 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, earning him Big Ten offensive player of the year honors and third team All-American honors. He also caught 28 passes for 402 yards and four more touchdowns. Folks in Pennsylvania wonder whether in this age of wide-open spread attacks, Barkley couldn’t rush for over 2,000 yards in 2017. Sophomores Miles Sanders (5’11” 201 lbs.) and Andre Robinson (5’9” 225 lbs.) rushed for 184 and 141 yards respectively as backups last season.

All of Penn State’s receivers return except for two-time all-Big Ten honoree Chris Godwin, who’s off to Tampa Bay. Senior tight end Mike Gesicki (6’6” 253 lbs.) leads the returning receivers with 48 catches for 679 yards and five touchdowns last season. Gesicki had a bit of the dropsies in 2015, but fixed it to become one of the most dependable receivers last season. Senior DaeSean Hamilton (6’1” 208 lbs.) caught 34 passes for 506 yards and a touchdown last season; he’s just 19 shy of the school record for career receptions. A name to keep in mind is sophomore Juwan Johnson (6’4” 225 lbs.); he only caught two passes last season, but made a splash this spring.

Injuries really hurt the Penn State offensive line, as nine different players had started at least three games. It didn’t seem to affect the bottom line too much - just look at Barkley’s numbers - but this year, that means even more experience. Sophomore left tackle Ryan Bates (6’4” 312 lbs.) started all 14 games last season, earning him freshman All-American honors from the Football Writers Association of America. Sophomore Connor McGovern (6’5” 312 lbs) will start at center after starting nine games last season at right guard. Seniors Andrew Nelson (6’6” 305 lbs.) and Brendan Mahon (6’4” 310 lbs.) are three-year starters who’ll get the nod at right and left guard respectively.

Penn State returns six starters from a defense that finished eighth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. The Nittany Lions finished ninth in pass efficiency defense and 11th in passing yards allowed, though. On the line, senior nose guard Parker Cothren (6’4” 302 lbs.) and senior defensive tackle (6’5” 293 lbs.) combined for 47 tackles, ten of which were for a loss. Cothran (the one with an “a” in the name) spent most of last season adjusting to a move inside from defensive end, but surged late in the season, capped by three tackles for loss against Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. A player to watch is sophomore defensive end Shareef Miller (6’5” 261 lbs.), who impressed this spring after posting 22 tackles (5.5 for a loss) last season as a freshman.

Senior middle linebacker Jason Cabinda (6’1 239 lbs.) has been a starter since late in his freshman season, though he missed the first five games of last season with a thumb injury. Cabinda racked up 100 tackles as a sophomore and 81 in nine games last season. Extrapolate that over a full season and you’ve probably got an all-Big Ten honoree. Junior weakside linebacker Manny Bowen (6’1” 224 lbs.) started 12 games last season with 68 tackles (8.5 for a loss). It might be a coincidence, but when all of their linebackers missed the Michigan game, they lost 49-10.

Senior free safety Marcus Allen (6’2” 206 lbs.) is a three year starter who led Penn State with 110 tackles last season, earning him third team all-Big Ten honors. analyst Bucky Brooks listed Allen at number four on his ranking of college defensive backs. Senior cornerback Grant Haley (5’9” 183 lbs.) had 39 tackles last season, but is probably best known for the game-winning return of the blocked field goal against Ohio State. With senior cornerback John Reid expected to miss most, if not all, of this season, he’ll be counted on to be Penn State’s top cover corner.

As defending Big Ten champions, Penn State won’t be surprising anybody in 2017. But if the injury bugs that afflicted the offensive line and linebacker corps don’t return this season, it’s not unreasonable to expect Penn State to challenge once again in the Big Ten east division. But you also have to expect Ohio State to be out for revenge in Columbus on October 28th, which should make it difficult, though not impossible, to repeat.