Boom, bust or bit of both? Penn State 2018 season in review and awards
Penn State began the 2018 season with an August game of paintball so competitive that coach James Franklin received welts, which he proudly displayed at the team’s preseason media day.
The moment foreshadowed how some fans would react to the Lions going 0-3 vs. Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan.
Still, despite having to replace 10 defensive starters, three assistant coaches and three of its top offensive playmakers of the decade, Penn State won nine games and could play in a major bowl for the third consecutive year.
In that span, Penn State’s wins rate (79.5 percent) ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten and is tied for seventh nationally. Only Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia have higher winning percentages among Power 5 teams over the last three years.
As Franklin noted after the loss to Ohio State, his team hasn’t moved from “great to elite” just yet. But the Lions took steps in 2018. Here’s our review.
Most valuable player
With 31 wins and nine school records, Trace McSorley has had perhaps the best quarterback career at Penn State. His season wasn’t the passing spectacle it has been (his 53.4 percent completion rate and 190-yard average are career lows), but McSorley didn’t get the help (from his body or his receivers) that he had in the past.
Still, one moment underscored McSorley’s value to the season. After missing three series (the longest such stretch of his career) against Iowa with a knee injury, McSorley returned in the second half for a 51-yard touchdown run that changed the game.
At points this year, Franklin lamented that his offense relied too heavily on McSorley. Penn State was lucky to have that blessing/curse.
Most valuable player not named Trace McSorley
Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos had a sophomore season to rival some of the best in school history. Gross-Matos has 20 tackles for loss, tying him with such greats as Bruce Clark (1978), LaVar Arrington (1999) and Aaron Maybin (2008).
A first-year starter, Gross-Matos grew more productive as the season progressed, generating 16 of his tackles for loss over the last seven games.
He’s 260 pounds, runs a 4.52 40-yard dash (according to his position coach Sean Spencer) and has harnessed that speed and power into an NFL-ready product. Good thing he has another season at Penn State.
Coach of the year
Defensive coordinator Brent Pry lost eight starters to graduation or personal reasons, had two others retire because of injuries and opened with a red-flag second half against Appalachian State. By season’s end, Pry and Spencer had one of the Big Ten’s better defensive lines and a fourth straight 40-sack season.
Even against Ohio State and Michigan, Penn State’s defense played really well in stretches (final scores aside). Pry and Spencer will get more offers for promotions; keeping them is a priority.
Pat Freiermuth led Penn State with seven touchdown catches and averaged nearly 14 yards per reception, surprising for a tight end and a true freshman. Even more important: Freiermuth didn’t play out of need because his position lacked depth. He won the spot over several returning players.
Kevin Givens isn’t among the team’s top-10 tacklers but impacted games beyond his numbers. He grew (literally at 285 pounds and figuratively) into an occupying middle presence who funneled tackles to Gross-Matos, fellow end Shareef Miller and linebackers Micah Parsons and Jan Johnson. Givens and fellow tackle Robert Windsor will be run-stoppers next season.
Penn State’s 51-6 victory over Pitt featured the team’s best half of football this season. The Lions outscored Pitt 37-0 in the second half, allowing minus-2 yards rushing in the third quarter.
Miles Sanders rushed for 118 yards in his hometown, punctuating Penn State’s last visit to Pittsburgh for a while. And it ended fittingly, with Franklin challenging a fumble in the last minute of play.
Michigan State, injured and deflated following a 10-point home loss to Northwestern, somehow finagled a 76-yard, game-winning touchdown drive in the final two minutes at Beaver Stadium.
Everything conspired against Penn State in this 21-17 loss. The Lions managed just one first down on their final three series, dropped a late interception and gave up a first down on a fake punt Franklin said he knew was coming.
Among the bad beats of the past three seasons, this might have been the worst.
Cornerback Amani Oruwariye ended a hold-your-breath opener with an overtime interception, giving the Lions a 45-38 win over Appalachian State. Oruwariye, named first-team all-Big Ten, led the team with three interceptions, and this was his best.
It shouldn’t have come to that, but Oruwariye made a great play to end the game.
Cornerback John Reid, among Penn State’s top defensive players in 2016, needed a few weeks to return to form after missing last season with a knee injury. Reid had a few tough moments, and missed two early games, but finished strong with two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
Freshman receiver Jahan Dotson (Nazareth) initially was scheduled to play four games and maintain his redshirt. Injuries and productivity concerns elsewhere opened a door, and Dotson stormed through it.
He started the season’s final three games (at a position he learned on the fly) and finished fourth among receivers with 12 catches. Dotson turned nine of those into first downs, becoming one of McSorley’s go-to players in important situations.
Penn State recovered just seven of its opponents’ 23 fumbles, the second-lowest percentage nationally among teams defending 20 or more fumbles.
Texas had the lowest such success rate (30 percent, or 6 of 20), and Clemson didn’t fare much better (9 of 27), so it probably doesn’t mean much. Still, a few more takeaways (especially against Michigan State, which lost none of its four fumbles) would have helped.
Johnathan Thomas, a fifth-year running back and special-teams player, returned a kickoff 94 yards against Indiana to set up the go-ahead score of Penn State’s 33-28 win.
Considering the respect Thomas commands, it might have been the most popular play of the season.
For the offseason
Attendance for Penn State’s last three home games was lowered by dreary weather and closed parking lots, which really affected the mood inside and outside Beaver Stadium.
Penn State couldn’t do anything about the historic level of rainfall, which turned grass fields to mud, but the incidents should prompt some off-season strategic planning sessions. Donors pay a lot of money to park; keeping some of those lots open is imperative. Buy straw.