On the heels of back-to-back seasons with top-10 finishes, NY6 games, and playoff talk, it felt like Penn State might finally be in a position to buck the all-too-familiar trend of falling back to earth after a stellar year. Now six games into life without 12 senior starters and Saquon Barkley, it’s pretty obvious that annual reloading is still slightly out of reach. The Nittany Lions have struggled at nearly every spot where starters were lost, except perhaps running back and tight end. Today we’ll look at replacing lost production on offense, with an article on defense for tomorrow.
Let’s get right to it. Replacing Barkley is impossible, but Miles Sanders has done really well rushing. Through six games in 2017, Barkley had 694 yards on 92 carries. Sanders now has 700 yards on 104 carries, so that’s more or less an exact replication. Add in Ricky Slade’s 155 yards on 26 carries, and the rushing attack is in good hands.
The real drop off here is receptions out of the back field. Barkley’s first six games last year featured 29 catches for 395 yards. Sanders has just nine receptions for 58 yards (Slade has 0 receptions). I’m not exactly sure why this is, whether a function of scheme, decisions by quarterback Trace McSorely, or what else. Sanders and Slade are elite athletes and should be used as weapons in the passing game. I’m not an offensive coordinator, and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn, but this is one spot I would look to exploit immediately.
Pat Freiermuth is emerging as a legitimate receiving threat with great hands, and through six games, the tight end position has probably fared the best following the graduation of Mike Gesicki. Though Gesicki’s freak ability are probably missed, the group of Freiermuth, Nick Bowers, and Jonathan Holland have easily made up the former’s production. In the first six games of 2017, Gesicki had 22 catches for 176 yards and four tuddies. The 2018 group currently has 23 catches for 272 yards and two TDs.
We’ve harped on the passing game, and it feels like it’s been stagnant, but that is only partially true. Through six games in 2017, DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins, and Brandon Polk totaled 65 receptions for 951 yards. Through six games this year, Johnson, KJ Hamler, Brandon Polk, Thompkins, and Mac Hippenhammer almost the stats with 59 receptions for 972 yards. So that’s interesting. The 2018 wideout group actually has 20 more yards on 6 fewer catches through six games than 2017. They also have 10 touchdowns, compared to just seven last year. Hamler has basically covered Hamilton’s stats, Johnson is about the same, but Thompkins has really fallen off. In 2017, he had 16 catches through six games, and this year he has just six receptions.
NOW, consider two things. First, Ricky Rahne had to figure out a way to replace 20ish receptions from Barkley through the first six games. If the tailbacks aren’t getting the ball, those throws have to go somewhere. Second, Penn State has 19 drops on the season. Right about now, you’re starting to cry, and I am too. Downfield blocking has suffered this season too, and that should not happen.
Unfortunately, things remain poor for the Nittany Lion kicking game. Off a record-setting year in 2016, Tyler Davis completely lost his form in 2017 going 6/13 on field goals through the first six games of the year. He would only attempt four kicks the rest of the season. In 2018, Jake Pinegar is 4/8 on field goals, with a schtoink and three bad misses. I think you stick with the youngster, but you have to pick and choose your spots.