By Adam Hensley
Through four games last season, Penn State sat at 2-2. Through seven games, the Nittany Lions remained unranked, sitting behind the likes of Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten East.
Fast forward to Jan. 2. Penn State ran the table — a run for the ages — to advance to and win the Big Ten Championship, giving the Nittany Lions the chance to face USC in one of the greatest Rose Bowl games in history.
The Lions’ incredible run ended there, however, in a 52-49 shootout loss to the Trojans.
Despite the loss in the season finale, head coach James Franklin viewed last season as a “nice step in the right direction.”
“I think being on that stage and playing that type of game, I do think there’s probably some value in that,” he said. “I also make the argument of losing that game at the end of the season has really motivated our players. They want this season to end differently. It left a little bit of a bad taste in their mouths, if you can imagine. But for me, walking into the locker room, I wanted to win the game — trust me — but I walked into that locker room so proud of our players, our coaches, our doctors, our trainers, everybody, because it was a special season.”
If he didn’t already command national attention, running back Saquon Barkley earned it in a dominant Rose Bowl performance.
The junior ran for 194 yards, scored three touchdowns (two on the ground, one through the air) while compiling 249 scrimmage yards.
He finished the season with 1,496 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. He also caught 28 passes for 402 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Barkley, now rising on the Heisman watch lists, gives Penn State one of the most dynamic offenses in all of college football. Offensive fireworks headlined Penn State’s postseason, not just the Rose Bowl.
Down 28-7 with less than a minute remaining in the first half of the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions rallied, outscoring the Badgers 31-3 after quarterback Trace McSorley launched a 40-yard touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall before halftime.
McSorley found Barkley for an 18-yard score in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, putting the Nittany Lions ahead for good. It was his fourth touchdown pass of the game. The quarterback tallied 384 yards and completed 22 passes at a 71 percent clip.
“Trace has that Tim-Tebow-winner personality,” senior safety Marcus Allen said.
The passer threw for a Big Ten best 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns last season and also ran for 365 yards and 7 touchdowns. His 3,979 total yards and 156.9 passing efficiency rating also led the conference.
Penn State brings back one of McSorley’s favorite targets this season: tight end Mike Gesicki. Hauling in 48 receptions, 679 yards, and 5 scores, the senior agreed with his coach in that last season was one for the ages but fans should expect even more.
“If Penn State’s back, then we have nothing else to work for, we have no reason to raise the bar,” he said. “Penn State is definably on its way back, and Penn State is back in the discussion that it should be, but in order for us to reach our expectations and our goals that we set, we still have room to improve.”
Penn State thrust itself into playoff conversations after winning the conference championship and earned respect among some of the nation’s top programs.
In a division once thought to be a two-team race between Ohio State and Michigan, Penn State shocked one of the country’s top conferences with its run to the championship.
“Every conference is claiming they’re the best conference in college football,” Franklin said. “I think I [have] a pretty good perspective. I’ve coached in every major conference as well as the NFL, and I’m not here to say that we’re the best, but there’s no doubt we’re a part of that argument.”