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Penn State football: Debating the ‘unsung hero’ of the Nittany Lions’ 2018 season

Trace McSorley, Miles Sanders and Yetur Gross-Matos dominated the Penn State headlines in 2018, and rightfully so. But there were plenty of unsung heroes throughout the Nittany Lions’ regular-season campaign.

But which ones made the biggest impact? Which overlooked Nittany Lions put Penn State in position to get a 10-win season in the Citrus Bowl?

Our two experts made their pick for Penn State’s unsung hero in 2018.

John McGonigal: DT Kevin Givens

Kevin Givens wasn’t a first-, second- or third-team All-Big Ten selection. He didn’t even make the honorable mention cutline by the conference coaches.

But outside of 6-foot-5 wrecking ball Yetur Gross-Matos, Givens was the Nittany Lions’ most disruptive defensive lineman in 2018. And he deserves more recognition for that.

“The guy that’s not getting a whole lot of love is Kevin Givens,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said on Nov. 13. “Kevin Givens, for us, is killing it. He’s doing his job consistently. And sometimes when you do that, other guys shine. But as a coaching staff and as a team, we know the value that Kevin’s bringing.”

Now, Givens’ numbers have improved. The defensive tackle has six more tackles in two fewer games. His 8.5 tackles for loss are fourth on the team, up from four last year. And he has a couple more quarterback hurries; Givens’ four is tied for second on the team.

When Givens was suspended for Penn State’s opener against Appalachian State, the Mountaineers rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns in a near-upset. When Givens came back the following week, he had seven tackles, two for loss, in a 51-6 win over Pitt.

And down the stretch in Big Ten play, Givens proved Franklin right, making an impact whether or not it was him finishing with the tackle. Robert Windsor — a second-team AP All-Big Ten selection — earned his 7.5 sacks this year. But four of them came in November, a time when Givens was forced to fight through constant double teams.

Against Maryland in the season finale, Givens logged two sacks. But his best play was blowing up the Terps backfield, forcing running back Javon Leake to reassess his options 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage before Shareef Miller cleaned it up for a TFL.

Givens got credit for nothing on that. But anyone who watched Penn State throughout the year knows what Givens brought to the table. He was a menace.

“It doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet,” Franklin said. “But his impact allowed other guys to have success.”

Josh Moyer: OG Connor McGovern

If we’re going to pick an unsung hero, we might as well start with the most traditionally unsung position group — offensive line.

From there, it’s pretty obvious. It has to be offensive guard/center Connor McGovern. He fits this term to a T.

You’ll never hear his name over the PA, unless he commits a penalty. He’ll never be a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week. And he’s not a player whom fans typically watch. But his growth has been undeniable this past season, and he’s developed into what NFL draft experts like Mel Kiper Jr. believe is the best offensive guard in the 2019 class — even as a junior.

The Nittany Lions’ running game is, statistically, superior to last year’s. How does that happen without a running back like Saquon Barkley? Well, that’s simple — with players like McGovern. Penn State is currently averaging 208.5 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry, which is 38 yards more a game compared to last season and 0.3 yards a carry better than 2017.

Although most reporters and fans don’t focus on the offensive line during the course of a game, those who do have come away impressed with McGovern. Pro Football Focus thought he boasted one of the nation’s top performances in Week 11 and named him to their National Team of the Week. (On 36 pass-blocking snaps, he didn’t give up a single QB pressure.) Then, the next week, he was named to PFF’s Big Ten Team of the Week after dominating Rutgers.

In a piece published Nov. 9, PFF highlighted how McGovern had allowed just one sack on 303 pass-block attempts at that point in the season.

On top of all that, his value to this team has been immense — both because of his leadership and versatility. McGovern shined at center the previous two years but was able to move to guard this season to allow Michal Menet to work to his strengths at center. But, when Menet went down, McGovern was there to pick up the offense. Against Maryland, with Menet injured, McGovern helped lead the Nittany Lions to more than 300 rushing yards.

“Just love watching him and how versatile he is for us — playing center, playing guard, and he could even play tackle for us,” offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said. “So he’s done some great things.”

He was named the team’s best offensive lineman at the annual awards banquet. And he earned a third-team spot on the All-Big Ten team — which was an oversight. (He should’ve been first-team.) But, hey, that’s why he’s an unsung hero.

McGovern didn’t get a lot of the credit he deserved this year. But those at the next level see it, and that’s why the junior should have a long football career ahead of him.

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