After its convincing 38-3 win over Maryland, Penn State has a shot at doing something it has never done in its Big Ten tenure: Record three consecutive 10-win seasons.
After 11-win campaigns in 2016 and 2017, James Franklin’s crew sits at 9-3 heading into its bowl game. Where the Nittany Lions are going is up for debate. Early bowl projections have Penn State in the Citrus Bowl after wins by Washington, Ohio State and Florida hurt the Nittany Lions’ New Year’s Six hopes. But Tuesday’s updated College Football Playoff rankings will offer important insight into Penn State’s postseason prospects.
Whether it’s the Peach, Fiesta or Citrus Bowl, though, it doesn’t really matter for the sake of making history. The last time Penn State rattled off three straight 10-win seasons was from 1980-82. Of course, the Nittany Lions were independent back then.
Since joining the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions have had two chances to record a third-consecutive double-digit win season, but fell short in 1995 and 2010.
If Franklin’s team can close the season with a win in Atlanta, Arizona or Orlando, it will be one of six teams to win at least 10 games in the last three seasons, joining Alabama, Oklahoma, Clemson, Ohio State and Boise State. With postseason wins, Washington and Troy would join that category, as well.
“You think about this three-year run, I know that this season there have been some ups and downs and some challenges and adversity,” Franklin said. “But when you talk about the Big Ten era, this has been one of the best three-year stretches in program history. We have a chance to do some really special things by winning the bowl game.”
- Welcome back, Juwan Johnson. The redshirt junior wideout, who hobbled off the field against Indiana and missed the last three games with an unspecified injury, returned with two catches for 46 yards. One of them was a 38-yarder — a deep post over the middle in which the 6-foot-4 target got behind zone coverage and bodied Maryland’s safety for the ball. KJ Hamler ran over to Johnson after the catch to slap his helmet in excitement, and no one could blame him, really. It’s been a rough year for Johnson, from the injury to ongoing drop concerns. He had preseason NFL draft hype surrounding him and that has significantly faded. But Saturday was a nice step forward for Johnson.
- Johnson’s 38-yard catch wasn’t Penn State’s only explosive play. Far from it. The Nittany Lions recorded 15 explosive plays — a run of 12 yards or more, or a completion of 15 yards or more. Penn State’s weekly goal is to have 16 percent of its plays reach that explosive benchmark, and on 68 total plays, the Nittany Lions hit at a 22 percent clip. Pretty darn good.
- True freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth snagged McSorley’s last touchdown pass in Beaver Stadium — and that’s no surprise. Freiermuth leads the team with seven touchdown grabs. The Nittany Lions have quite the young core of pass-catchers moving forward with Freiermuth, Hamler, Jahan Dotson and more.
- Of course, McSorley’s final game at Beaver Stadium was the story Saturday, but it was an afternoon to remember for Penn State’s other seniors, too. Amani Oruwariye had a tackle for loss and pass breakup. DeAndre Thompkins had three catches. Even reserves got some run, with Johnathan Thomas earning a couple carries, tight end Joe Arcangelo hauling in his first career catch, and Christopher Welde and Tyler Shoop seeing time. “It was fantastic to see all of those guys get on the field and have a chance to play,” Franklin said. “I don’t know if you could have written a better script for the way that this regular season ended.”
- If Miles Sanders declares for the NFL draft after this season, the Nittany Lions backfield will be in good hands — and legs. Ricky Slade can be special. The true freshman rushed for 64 yards on 11 carries, the most work he had seen since Penn State’s blowout at Illinois in September. The former No. 1 running back recruit in the country, whose redshirt was burned already earlier this year, showed his shiftiness working between the tackles, accounting for four first downs and finding the end zone twice. Slade’s first touchdown was an 8-yard run in which he slipped by a defender at the line of scrimmage and spun around another to cross the line. His second score was a 1-yard scamper around the edge. It was hard not to be impressed by Slade.
- Sanders is having a stellar season. After a 128-yard performance against the Terrapins, the junior wrapped up the regular season with five 100-yard performances, one more than Saquon Barkley had in 2017. Sanders is averaging 5.91 yards per rush, the fourth-most in college football among players with at least 200 carries. But for all his great attributes — the cutting, the power, the subtle elusiveness that might make him a Day 2 draft prospect — Sanders has one fatal flaw: Holding onto the football. Against Maryland, Sanders lost his fourth fumble of the season, which is tied for the most in the country among running backs. Ball security might keep Sanders from being a top-five running back selected in April.
- Drops, drops, drops. They have returned. Thompkins let a couple of first downs slip through his hands. And Hamler had a long gain in his bread basket and should have held on, but a hit jarred the ball free. The weather was less than ideal, but this has been an ongoing issue with no real solution in sight. Maybe 15 bowl practices will help.