A season of high expectations in State College, Pennsylvania, has hit a bit of a detour leading to a much different destination for Penn State. After an offseason of some notable changes within the program due to staff changes and roster adjustments, head coach James Franklin still had reason to believe the 2018 college football season could be a special one. But as Penn State hits the midway point of their season, the Nittany Lions are in need of looking in the mirror to see what can be fixed from the inside before attempting to end the season playing in a big bowl game.
Penn State suffered two straight losses before hitting the midway point of the season, and both games came at home against the only two teams to defeat them in 2017. Franklin used the first loss, to Ohio State, as an opportunity to let everyone know he was done being a very good program and was setting the bar higher to be an elite program. The first test to being elite failed with a second straight loss at home, this time to Michigan State.
With Trace McSorley at quarterback and emerging stars in Miles Sanders and KJ Hamler, however, Penn State’s offense still has plenty of punch left in it. The defense has had its moments as well, but the entire team has room for improvement in the second half of the season if the Lions are going to restore the roar to Franklin’s liking.
Offensive MVP: QB Trace McSorley
An obvious choice for Penn State’s offensive MVP is McSorley. At this point in the season, McSorley ranks eighth in the Big Ten… in rushing yards. The dual-threat signal-caller has rushed for 447 yards and six touchdowns, both keeping him in the top 10 among all Big Ten players. The passing numbers aren’t quite as impressive as other quarterbacks in the Big Ten, but he does have 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions this season. He’ll need some big games through the air to match his previous seasons, but McSorley is still rewriting the Penn State record book as the season continues.
Defensive MVP: DB Amani Oruwariye
One of Penn State’s top defensive backs this season, Oruwariye also has come up with a pair of interceptions. The first came in a Week 1 overtime thriller against Appalachian State that sealed the win for the Nittany Lions, as the Mountaineers attempted to tie the game with a throw to the end zone. Unfortunately for Penn State, Oruwariye was unable to keep his hands on an interception late against Michigan State, which also would have sealed a win at home.
Best Moment of the First Half: Trace McSorley’s Game-Tying Drive vs. Appalachian State
Penn State’s season got off to a challenging start when Appalachian State put together an impressive fourth-quarter rally that put the home team in a hole late in the season opener. But with time to work with, McSorley delivered the kind of drive he did a year ago at Iowa to help prevent the Nittany Lions from losing.
Down 38-31 with 1:39 to play and following a 52-yard kickoff return by KJ Hamler, McSorley completed his first two passes to bring on a 3rd-and-2 situation. After his pass on third down fell incomplete, McSorley completed a fourth-down pass to Brandon Polk for a 10-yard gain to keep the drive alive. He then followed that with a 14-yard pass to Juwan Johnson, a one-yard run, and a 15-yard pass to Hamler to tie the game at 38-38. Penn State would win the game in overtime, 45-38.
Best Newcomer: WR KJ Hamler
The speedy Hamler has had an impact on offense and special teams. He hasn’t taken a kickoff return to the house just yet, but his impressive return yardage has at times sparked the offense. The redshirt freshman is leading Penn State in receiving yardage and touchdowns, including a blazing fast 93-yard score against Ohio State.
Biggest Surprise: The Close Calls at Home
Perhaps the season opener was a preview of things to come. Penn State prides itself on making Beaver Stadium an intimidating place to play, yet Appalachian State nearly pulled off a shocking upset in Week 1 and Ohio State and Michigan State have each just left Happy Valley with close wins against the Nittany Lions. Going 0-2 against Ohio State and Michigan State is likely a bit surprising, as most would have probably guessed Penn State would have gone 1-1 at worst in those two matchups in the first half of the season. But two straight losses at home to the same two teams that narrowly edged Penn State last season has raised some concern levels around the program moving into the second half of the year.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can Penn State bounce back in big games?
After essentially being eliminated from the College Football Playoff picture midway through the season and now having an incredibly long shot at playing for a Big Ten title, Penn State has no choice but to go back to breaking the season down game-by-game and seeing where the cards lay at the end. There are some monster games ahead for a Penn State team that could still play itself into position for a possible New Year’s Six bowl game.
The Nittany Lions have to play better against their top opponents though, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Going 3-0 may be required if Penn State is going to play in a big bowl game for a third straight season. Two out of three won’t cut it for a program trying to reach that elite status as James Franklin has stressed.
2. Will Penn State receivers find a way to be more reliable?
The passing game is on track to have a less productive season this year despite seemingly having some talent to rely on. This season has seen a number of dropped passes by receivers that didn’t hurt Penn State early on but are enough to create a problem in key games. There are times when Trace McSorley can make a better pass, but there have been far too many times when his receivers just could not keep their hands on the football when they really should have.
3. Will Miles Sanders eclipse Saquon Barkley’s rushing total?
Sanders has already rushed for 700 yards this year, including a career-high 200 against Illinois. Sanders has shown he is more than capable of making some big runs of his own. He is already more than halfway to Barkley’s 2017 rushing total of 1,271 yards and Sanders has a shot to go beyond Barkley’s 1,496 yards from ’16. If Sanders reaches those numbers, he will have done so with a second-half schedule that faces the Big Ten’s No. 2 and No. 3 rushing defenses in Iowa and Michigan, as well as No. 5 Maryland. But he did just rush for 162 yards against the Big Ten’s best rushing defense, Michigan State.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 3 at Michigan
The Wolverines continue to look like a legitimate Big Ten title contender, and the home team has won each of the last two games in this series in blowout fashion. This will be Penn State’s biggest obstacle the rest of the way if the Nittany Lions want a chance to still play in a New Year’s Six bowl game, but one of the best defenses paired with an offense continuing to gain confidence makes for a very challenging matchup for Penn State in early November.
2. Nov. 10 Wisconsin
A week after visiting Michigan, Penn State returns home to play the Badgers. The stakes may not be as high as they could have given both teams have already lost twice, but Wisconsin will likely be in need of a win if it hopes to get back to the Big Ten Championship Game. Stingy defense and a power running game may play to Wisconsin’s advantage here.
3. Oct. 27 Iowa
The Hawkeyes come to Happy Valley a year after losing to Penn State on a last-second play. Given how the season has gone, Iowa could give Penn State another tough battle in Beaver Stadium.
4. Nov. 24 Maryland
Maryland has shown signs of improvement and could be capable of pulling an upset in the regular-season finale, but Penn State still has advantages in talent and depth that Maryland may not be able to compare with at the end of the year. Penn State destroyed Maryland last year and could score a lopsided win here too.
5. Oct. 20 at Indiana
After losing two straight games, a road trip to Bloomington could go either way in terms of difficulty. But if Penn State takes this opportunity to get back to what works best for the team, the Nittany Lions should manage to play well on the road against the Hoosiers.
6. Nov. 17 at Rutgers
Rutgers continues to struggle this season and a matchup with Penn State is not one that should see the Scarlet Knights put up too much of a fight. The game may be Penn State’s last road trip of the year, but there will be plenty of Nittany Lions fans in New Jersey for this one.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.