Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley, Penn State out to prove last year was no fluke

Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley, Penn State out to prove last year was no fluke

STATE COLLEGE, Pa.  -- Two years ago, James Franklin urged Penn State fans to be patient. He and his players believed a plan was in motion.

That patience wore thin through back-to-back 7-6 seasons, but paid off last season. After shaking off a slow start, the Nittany Lions won nine straight games, including a come-from-behind victory in the Big Ten championship game that put them within reach of a playoff berth.

"Last year's last year, and this year's this year," Franklin said. "We want to take all those experiences and maturity that we gained from last year and then continue growing and evolving."

That's been a theme since Franklin took over a program then reeling from NCAA sanctions and reduced scholarship numbers.

Back then, Franklin committed to playing handfuls of freshmen. Now, players who were vaunted recruits at the time have formed a core of grizzled veterans who are primed to take the next step.

But the Nittany Lions have more than just experience going for them.

Nine starters, including dynamic running back Saquon Barkley, return to an offense that was among the country's most explosive down the stretch. Six defensive starters are back to take cues from rising defensive coordinator Brent Pry and juniors and sophomores return who all have logged meaningful time or swapped starts during Franklin's tenure. Newly arriving freshmen are looking to earn a job right away, giving this camp a much more competitive feel than last season.

That's what Franklin wants.

"If you go into practice and you're screwing up, making mistakes, guys are going to pass you," linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "It's no longer a point where you have the first team and then with the second team there's a drop off and then the third team after that is a bigger drop off. We have guys on the second and third teams that the coaches feel really good about playing."

Barkley's World
Everyone from coaches to teammates to Heisman Trophy prognosticators feel good about Barkley.

His 2,572 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns over the past two years have usually come via spectacular runs and he could turn similar numbers into the school's second Heisman win. Running back John Cappelletti won it in 1973.

"It's something that I can truly say, we're not really thinking about with each play," offensive tackle Andrew Nelson said. "The thing we do think about is the fact that if we can do our job every play, it's not if or when he's going to make a big play, it's he will make a big play."

Trace's Space
Quarterback Trace McSorley quickly emerged as a dangerous player last season, not only for an ability to extend plays or smart decision-making, but for his downfield throwing ability few teams were prepared for.

Expect more from McSorley in Year 2 of Joe Moorhead's no-huddle offense.

The usually reserved Moorhead grew offended at suggestions he heard in the offseason that McSorley's efforts were flukey. In fact, his system is much more nuanced than it might've looked when McSorley was picking on safeties over the top.

"A kid couldn't lead the league in multiple passing categories and set school single season records and be on the verge of multiple other school records if he was just throwing the ball indiscriminately down the field," Moorhead said.

Turning the Corner
The secondary lost its best cover cornerback when John Reid suffered a serious knee injury in the spring. Reid, who played more snaps than any Nittany Lion last season, was expected to lead a secondary that was returning mostly intact.

While Franklin hasn't ruled Reid out for the season, he doesn't seem close to returning. Reid took an internship for the summer and was still in Oregon fulfilling it when camp began.

Pry has options, however. Christian Campbell has started when others have been hurt and adds length opposite Grant Haley, one of the team's most experienced and cerebral players.

Line Games
This team is built to withstand injuries in bunches. It proved it last season when all three starting linebackers were out early and both starting offensive tackles were hurt late.

As a result, more offensive linemen like Connor McGovern got playing time and Penn State enters 2017 with a legit two-deep that could potentially be mixed and matched with potential for success.

Defensively, the Nittany Lions would benefit from a bonafide pass-rusher to emerge. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller are the frontrunners, but have had to earn reps behind older players up until this year.

No 2. Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: Defensive struggle with huge stakes

college-football-penn-state-michigan-1021.jpg
NBC Sports Philadelphia

No 2. Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: Defensive struggle with huge stakes

No. 2 Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 19 Michigan (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten)
Beaver Stadium, State College
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC

Scouting Penn State
The second-ranked Nittany Lions were idle last week, after beating Northwestern, 31-7, on Oct. 7, as Trace McSorley went 25 for 34 for 245 yards and two touchdowns. McSorley, taking advantage of a defense stacked in an attempt to limit the effectiveness of star running back Saquon Barkley, completed a school-record 15 straight passes in one stretch. Barkley, while held to 75 yards on the ground, did break off a 53-yard touchdown run, one of two scores he had in the game. He leads the nation in all-purpose yards per game (217.0). The Lions, who are also atop the nation in scoring defense (9.0), are led on that side of the ball by linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen with 40 and 35 tackles, respectively. Fourteen players have had a hand in a sack, and 26 have been part of a tackle for loss.

Scouting Michigan
The No. 19 Wolverines beat Indiana 27-20 in overtime last week, on a 25-yard run by Karan Higdon. Higdon finished with 25 carries for 200 yards and three TDs, all career highs, and to date has rushed for 401 yards (5.7 a carry). Quarterback John O’Korn, who has taken over for the injured Wilton Speight, was just 10 for 20 for 58 yards against the Hoosiers. He has clicked on 54.9 percent of his throws, for 563 yards and a touchdown, and has been picked off four times. UM has allowed the fewest yards per game in the FBS this season (223.8), and while middle linebacker Devin Bush is fourth in the Big Ten in tackles (49) and second in sacks (5), the key to the Wolverines’ D is Maurice Hurst, an eyeblink-quick defensive tackle.

History
Michigan leads the all-time series 13-7 and has won the last three meetings. The Wolverines routed the Lions last year in Ann Arbor, 49-10, in the most one-sided game ever between the two teams. PSU has gone 15-1 since.

Storyline to watch
It’s pretty simple: In a game that has “defensive struggle” written all over it, which offense can gain traction? And which team can avoid a killer mistake? 

What’s at stake
A PSU victory sets up a showdown against No. 6 Ohio State next weekend in Columbus.

Prediction
Penn State 21, Michigan 13.

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

ap-psu-whiteout-game-fireworks.jpg
AP Images

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

This team is back. That team is back. The practice of proclaiming that a struggling traditional college football power has returned to elite status after a big win is fraught with false steps.

The truth is that a return to glory can rarely be narrowed down to a single game. But if there ever was a "they're back" moment in college football that turned out to be real, it was on Oct. 22, 2016, in State College, Pennsylvania.

That night, unranked Penn State — a month removed from getting demolished at Michigan and three weeks after an overtime escape against Minnesota that had Nittany Lions fans booing the home team — beat No. 2 Ohio State in a Beaver Stadium whiteout. For the first time under coach James Franklin, Happy Valley was euphoric about Penn State football.

The Nittany Lions have been one of the best teams in the country since.

One year after that victory, the Nittany Lions have another whiteout scheduled and another Big Ten power visiting for a nationally televised game. The difference is that it will be no upset if No. 2 Penn State (6-0) beats No. 19 Michigan (5-1) on Saturday night.

The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, but a lethargic offense (86th in the nation). Penn State looks like a College Football Playoff team right now with a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Saquon Barkley, a top-25 offense (6.49 yards per play) and a top-five defense (4.01 ypp).

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called Penn State "a well-built team."

"They're really good everywhere," he said.

It's easy to point to last year's Ohio State game as a turning point for Penn State in the post-Joe Paterno era, but the humbling loss to Michigan was also notable. The Nittany Lions were banged up on defense and still working out the kinks of a new offense, but at that moment they looked light years from being able to consistently compete with the best in the country. They have not lost a regular-season game since.

All this talk of turning points does not resonate with Franklin, who just sees a long steady grind that continues to this day.

"Like I say with a lot of things, there's 25 slices in this pie," Franklin said. "The Michigan loss last year was a factor. Development was a factor. Players taking responsibility and accountability was a factor. The coaches building relationships and chemistry with the players was a factor. I don't make it as simplistic as a lot of people want it to be."

Things to know about 21st meeting between Penn State and Michigan, but the first since 2002 in which both teams are ranked:

Brown delivers
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and Franklin worked together at Maryland under coach Ralph Friedgen in 2009 and '10.

"I would describe Don as a greedy defensive coordinator," said Franklin, who was offensive coordinator. "What I mean by that is, most defensive coordinators are going to try to take something away, but when they take something away, they're giving you something.

"Don doesn't believe in that. Don is going to overload the box. A lot of guys are going to be on the line of scrimmage in blitz demeanor. The defensive backs are going to be pressed pretty much across the board. They're going to try to take your run game away. They're going to take all the easy throws away."

Heisman watch
Barkley's Heisman campaign slowed a bit the last couple weeks as he was held to a 121 yards rushing and 60 receiving. Still, he is without question the focus of Michigan's defense.

"He runs with great balance," Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said told reporters this week. "He can make those cuts. He can hit those small holes."

Penn State's offensive line has had issues keeping defenders out of the backfield and giving Barkley a chance to get rolling. The Nittany Lions rank 122nd in the nation in tackles for loss allowed at 8.33 per game.

"We just have to be more physical up front and sustain our blocks," center Connor McGovern said.

Sluggish Wolverines
Michigan's team passer efficiency rating is 114.41, better than only Illinois and Rutgers in the Big Ten. John O'Korn (one touchdown pass, four interceptions) is expected to start again at quarterback.

Gameday
For the first time since 2009, ESPN's "College GameDay" pregame show will broadcast from State College. Beaver Stadium holds almost 107,000 people and when almost all of them are wearing white it can be one of the most hypnotic sights in college football. Penn State only holds whiteouts for big games. The Nittany Lions are 6-7 in those games.