If not for a certain juggernaut headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, the Penn State Nittany Lions likely would be the favorites to win the entire Big Ten in 2020. Penn State has won eleven games three out of the last four seasons with three trips to “New Years Six” bowl games to match. However, it’s not accurate to assume that they’d be dominating the Big Ten if not for the Buckeyes; each season Penn State has stumbled in another game to the likes of Pitt, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota.
Last season, some might have expected Penn State to step back after losing Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders to the NFL, but aside from a hiccup against the Gophers (and falling short against Ohio State), the Lions were strong contenders in the Big Ten’s east division. And with eight returning starters on offense, Penn State should be considered “next team up” should Ohio State falter.
Probably the biggest reason Penn State improved in 2019 was the emergence of junior quarterback Sean Clifford (6’2” 219 lbs.). Clifford completed 59% of his passes for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He’s a dual-threat, rushing for 402 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging 3.5 yards per carry. Sophomore Will Levis (6’3” 231 lbs.) relieved an injured Clifford during the Ohio State game, completing 28 of 47 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. Despite his size, Levis averaged 4.3 yards per carry, rushing for 213 yards and five touchdowns.
A running back by committee worked wonders for Penn State last season, with junior Journey Brown (5’11” 216 lbs.) rushing for 890 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging an impressive 6.9 yards per carry. Sophomore Noah Cain (5’10” 223 lbs.) rushed for 443 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Sophomore Devyn Ford (5’11” 200 lbs.) rushed for 294 yards and three touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. The trio combined for eight 100-yard games during the season (Brown tallied five of ‘em), so no matter who’s in there, Penn State should have a good running back in the game.
Penn State’s biggest loss this offseason is wide receiver KJ Hamler, a second round draft pick by the Denver Broncos. But junior tight end Pat Freiermuth (6’5” 259 lbs.), a fourth team All-American last season, returns after a 43 catch season for 507 yards and seven touchdowns. Junior Jahan Dotson (5’11” 184 lbs.) was third on the team in 2019 with 27 catches for 488 yards and five touchdowns. The rest of the receiver corps is pretty inexperienced; sophomore Daniel George (6’2” 215 lbs.) started four games and caught 9 passes for 100 yards.
Four of five starters return on the offensive line led by senior right tackle Will Fries (6’6” 309 lbs.), who’s started 35 games so far in his college career. He’s practicing some at guard to help better prepare him for an NFL career. Senior center Michal Menet (6’4” 302 lbs.) has been a two year starter, while sophomore Rasheed Walker (6’6” 326 lbs.) started every game last season at left tackle. With Fries and Menet flirting with the NFL last season, this should be one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten this season.
Defense is the primary reason why people might hesitate regarding Penn State in 2020 with only four returning starters on defense. Only senior defensive end Shaka Toney (6’3” 245 lbs.) returns after earning postseason honors last season. A second team all-Big Ten honoree last season, Toney led Penn State with 6.5 sacks last season; his 41 tackles ranks third among returning starters. Senior nose guard Antonio Shelton (6’2” 315 lbs. returns as well, but the hopes are high on sophomore defensive end Jason Oweh (6’5” 257 lbs.) and junior defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher (6’4” 305 lbs.) emerging as stars this season.
With Micah Parsons deciding to forego the 2020 season, “Linebacker U” is starting over fresh. Sophomore Brandon Smith (6’3” 240 lbs.) was a five-star recruit who’s anticipated to be Penn State’s next great linebacker, while true freshman Curtis Jacobs (6’1” 230 lbs.) could see playing time almost immediately as another five-star talent. Junior Ellis Brooks (6’1” 236 lbs.) has racked up 69 tackles as a reserve his first two seasons and should be the leader at this position.
Senior safety Lamont Wade (5’9” 193 lbs.) is Penn State’s leading returning tackler with 67 last season. Senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields (6’0” 190 lbs.) was a third team all-Big Ten honoree last season. There’s a solid group of highly regarded youngsters, such as redshirt freshman Joey Porter Jr. (6’2” 192 lbs.) and sophomore Keaton Ellis (5’11” 183 lbs.) who could emerge as the season develops.
With the 2020 edition of Penn State, I suspect it might be better to face them earlier than later in the season, due to the relative inexperience at so many positions on defense. If the recruiting pans out, Penn State should be a strong contender to throw much more than a token challenge to Ohio State’s dominance in the Big Ten’s east division.
What happens when Penn State comes to Lincoln
This poll is closed
Penn State makes it an ugly day for the Big Red
Nebraska fights and makes it a game, but the Nittany Lions eek out a road win.
Huskers pull out an upset win at home!