Can the Big Ten Champions keep the momentum going?
Plus the 2018 NFL Draft eligible prospects to keep an eye on this weekend.
Sat 2 Sep 2017 (5pm)
Beaver Stadium (106,572)
It would be wise to admit that few of us predicted the achievements the State College, Pennsylvania school went on to achieve a year ago, landing both a first league title since 2008 being being crowned Big-Ten conference champions. Such was the significance of the drought, January’s Rose Bowl defeat, having squandered a healthy eighteen point lead in the process, was the first time the school had been to a bowl game for no less than eight long years.
However, there is no doubt that tumultuous recent history and crippling sanctioning eroded the program down to its bones. Emerging from the embers came the eye opening development of three generational stars, who broke out to dispel the gloom, restore hope and lead the school to glory, from the depths of a 46th best programme ranking this time last year to being named a consensus 6th best in the nation today.
Head Coach James Franklin, formerly of Vanderbilt, was perched upon one of the hottest seats in college football, all eyes upon him far and wide impatiently looking for him to fail.
What happened next was one of the stories of a tumultuous, yet extraordinary 2016/17 college football campaign not only in the Big Ten, where both Ohio State and Michigan State faltered but nationally as a whole. Franklin was in no mood to settle for mediocrity, instead taking advantage of the stuttering aforementioned foes, capped with a decisive victory (24-21), in Columbus on that famous night at the intimidating ‘Horseshoe’ on October 22nd, from which the Lions never looked back.
While a significant weakness and source of embarrassment previously, Franklin’s offensive line is growing in strength and returns in its entirety, needing to continue its upward trajectory if it is to repeat, while the story is the same on the defensive line. However, of course, it is the trio of stars on offence who made such a big name for themselves last season that are the key figures to keep your eye on this Saturday.
#9 QB Trace McSorley*
To my mind the finest passer in the Big-Ten (and its not very close) and an early contender to be the first quarterback selected in the 2018 NFL Draft. Having impressively won out in the competition to replace Christian Hackenburg, the then sophomore went on to break a plethora of school passing records before being crowned the Conference MVP at season’s end. A highly talented, reliable and steady talent, who possesses a calm authority in the pocket and a more than healthy arm strength. One of a number of exciting, young passers that at this stage at least, form a fascinating group of draft eligible signal callers. There’s no doubting here as to the leader of the offensive unit for the foreseeable future and leader the head of the rebirth of a once tired, famous program.
#26 RB Saquon Barkley*
Having risen to the acclaim of ‘best in conference’ the moment he set foot in State College as a freshman two years ago, the junior is one of the most prodigiously talented rushers in all of college football, let alone the Big-Ten Conference. Gifted athletically, the junior can do it all, between the tackles or hitting the outside, using his strength, balance, quickness and nimble feet to be a nightmarish prospect for defenders to bring down, forcing a plethora of missed tackles as is his trademark. A sure-fire Heisman Trophy candidate in my eyes, who weaved his way to 1,496 yards and 18 scores last season, forming one of college football’s most dangerous QB/RB combinations. Keep an eye on Barkley’s growing progression as a talented pass catcher, another string to his bow, that if he decides to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft, in my opinion, will be the #1 running back in April. He will take some removing from that pedestal this season, destined for his greatest campaign yet of which I have no doubt. Barkley has only just scratched the surface of his talents – let that sink in for a moment.
#88 TE Mike Gesicki
Having primarily operated as a blocking specialist, Gesicki broke out as a dangerous pass catching weapon to round out a 1-2-3 punch that led the school to such success last season. In fact he went one better, smashing program records for the position, reeling in an impressive 48 catches for 679 yards and 5 touchdowns, providing the inexperienced McSorley with a valuable, reliable and dangerous insurance policy in first year co-ordinator Joe Moorhead’s newly installed offense. The senior will be a vital, reassuring component in the passing game particularly as a result of lingering doubts at the receiver position following the loss of Chris Godwin to the NFL in the spring. Gesicki will be competing with Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli to be the top ranked tight end in our 2018 NFL Draft rankings – right now they are 1a/1b.
Also keep an eye on…
#5 WR DeaSean Hamilton
#40 LB Jason Cabinda
#2 FS Marcus Allen
The Zips possess intriguing talent at the game’s most vital positions, despite being light on experience, something that could hinder them in the face of a resurgent Penn State team. Akron, who endured a down year (5-7) on the heels of a first bowl victory in 2015/6’s Famous Idaho Potato, will be able to cause the Nittany Lions problems nevertheless, but I question their ability to be able to keep apace on the scoreboard with the Lion’s high powered trio on offence.
# 6 QB Nick Johns
A passer who impressed me in spells during his time in spot duty for Virginia, who seemingly always had his path to starting status blocked during his time with the Cavaliers. Having been highly productive following a transfer to NE Oklahoma A&M during a bounce back 2016/17, he finds himself once more in the FBS fold as a senior, who stands to make an impact if he can cement himself finally as a starter at this level and establish his name in draft reckoning. With current starter Thomas Woodson on the treatment table, he will have no better opportunity to achieve this.
#34 RB Warren Ball
Formerly recruited by Ohio State, the one time transfer brings a muscular, chain moving ability to the position in Terry Bowden’s spread offensive scheme, in what will be his sixth year of eligibility, following a string of injuries that has sidelined his career to date. This could be a bounce-back campaign for the former Buckeye, who is just so difficult to bring to the turf.
# 5 LB Ulysses Gilbert III*
The most impressively talented linebacker in the MAC bar non, whose outstanding sophomore campaign was rewarded with a All-Conference honours at season’s end, having g amassed 122 defensive stops, of which 11.5 were for a loss, forcing two fumbles and weighing in with a further four sacks to boot. A future NFL star in the making with the majority of his development ahead of him.
Also keep an eye on…
#82 WR Austin Wolf
#8 DE Darius Copeland
#32 SS Zach Guiser
Penn State: -30
Penn State 33 Akron 16
Featured Image: Nick Commett/USA Today Sports