“The realty is, we’ve gone from an average football team, to a good football team, to a great football team, but we’re not an elite team yet.”
These are the words of Penn State head coach James Franklin following another one point loss to Ohio State in 2018. Aside from the Nittany Lions 2016 season, where they rode quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, Penn State hasn’t been elite. That year Penn State won the Big Ten and almost pulled out a thriller against USC in the Rose Bowl.
Franklin’s statement of not being elite came to life this season after an abysmal 0-5 start. The Nittany Lions were luckily able to recover and win their last four games to finish the season 4-5. This strong finish should create momentum moving towards next year.
Looking at the bigger picture, Penn State undoubtedly has been a solid program by most standards. Franklin has guided his team to 11 wins in three of the last five campaigns. In order to obtain that “elite” status as a program, Franklin and crew need to bust through the Buckeye roadblock in the Big Ten East.
Here’s How Penn State Returns to Elite Status:
Find Identity On Offense
With the recent hiring of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, Penn State may be shifting towards a structured passing attack. In the last five seasons the Penn State passing scheme has been vertical by taking their chances in one-on-one shot plays from the slot. This allowed ultra speedy wideouts like K.J. Hamler and DaeSean Hamilton to try and beat the defense deep. Also it allowed for athletic freaks at tight end like Mike Gesicki and Pat Freiermuth to make jump ball catches against smaller defenders.
On paper this sounds perfect but when a team is running zone and preventing the deep ball, Penn State has had no other elements to their passing game. They resorted to predictable quick passes such as quick outs, slants and curls. When teams are covering well on these underneath routes it leads to major sputtering in the offense.
Mike Yurcich has been well traveled as a play caller and his experience will only help the Nittany Lions. Over the past decade Yurcich has steered Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Texas as a coordinator and quarterback coach. Yurcich should dial up a concept that harvests all his successful passing schemes and formulate a good plan of attack. Mesh routes and deep crosses are a few of these concepts.
In regards to running the ball, Penn State has produced on the ground. Recent running backs like the previously mentioned Barkley and even Miles Sanders have become centerpieces to their respective offenses in the NFC East. The two players currently toting the rock are no slouches and have a ton of potential.
Devyn Ford and Noah Cain are the two horses in the stable that have a lightning and thunder like approach to them. Ford (the lightning) is super shifty and loves to make people miss out in space with his speed. Cain (the thunder) is quicker than he is fast, but makes people miss with his footwork and will follow that up with running someone over. If Cain can come back healthy after suffering a season ending leg injury against Indiana week one, watch out.
Defensive Front Seven Need To Dig In
When you watch Penn State on the defensive side of the ball since 2016, it looks like a lot of copy and paste. There will be defensive ends and linebackers that will wow viewers with their athleticism, coupled with defensive backs that play very physical. The problem is that up front there’s no push whatsoever.
Defensive tackle and 2020 sixth round pick Robert Windsor was the first Penn State interior defensive lineman drafted since 2016. That 2016 draft saw both Nittany Lion defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel come off the board. If Windsor hadn’t had a great showing at the 2020 Senior Bowl, then that bad stretch could have been even longer.
For a program that was always built on defense and was proclaimed as LBU (Linebacker University), not producing NFL talent on the interior defensive line is unacceptable. As a 4-3 defense with two defensive tackles on the field consistently, Penn State needs to find better players to fulfill those two spots. The departure of defensive line coach Larry Johnson in 2013 is probably the underlying factor that caused this deficiency.
Recruiting For Success
James Franklin and staff have done their part to alleviate the above issues on the recruiting trail. In the last two classes Penn State has pulled in multiple four star defensive tackles to help stop the bleeding inside. In the 2020 class alone, Penn State picked up commits from four pass catchers of the top 300 nationally ranked prospects. The headliner is top 100 tight end Theo Johnson, who is looking to follow the path to the NFL blazed by his predecessors.
Game Planning For 2021
On defense, it’s imperative to unlock the potential of underclassmen defensive tackles Dvon Ellies, Hakeem Beamon and Coziah Izzard. Linebackers like Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks set the tone for the rest of the defense.
Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. is well on his way to becoming a household NFL name, just like his father and Steelers legend Joey Porter Sr. He should shut down one side of the field, essentially creating less space for opposing offenses to operate.
On offense, there needs to be improved quarterback play. Yurcich should push for an open competition to see who is the best choice for his offense. There’s too many weapons like the running backs listed above, and studs on the outside like Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington to waste another season. Penn State’s playmakers stack up well with the rest of the country and they should be getting the ball early and often.
Penn State has a die hard fan base who deserves to see their team in the playoffs, especially following the 2016 debacle. One of the biggest letdowns from this season was not getting to see the always exciting “White Out” game in State College. Hopefully next year we will see fans in the stands. If Franklin’s staff can get the best out of this football team, Penn State should once again be competing for the Big Ten title.
On a side note, with the talks of possible playoff expansion, Penn State can really control their own destiny. They are capable of playing with anyone, as demonstrated with their consistently close games against Ohio State. In an expanded playoff with let’s say eight teams, a really close one loss Penn State team has a great shot to get in. Franklin and staff should really join the effort in pushing for expansion.