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18 Nuggets That Define Penn State Football in 2018

by on December 09, 2018 7:00 PM

The Citrus Bowl is next up for Penn State.

After National Signing Day next Wednesday, of course.

And we’ll hear all about it from head coach James Franklin and several players starting this Friday, when they meet with the media in Beaver Stadium.

In advance of those two big events, I dug out 18 nuggets that in many ways provide a roadmap to understanding the Nittany Lions’ 9-3 record for 2018 — and a look ahead to what’s on tap in the Jan. 1 bowl game vs. Kentucky, as well as Penn State’s 2019 season.

Here goes:

1. ONLY THE BEST PEOPLE: Five former Penn State assistant coaches under James Franklin had strong 2018 seasons — elsewhere. In his first season as head coach at Mississippi State, (1.) Joe Moorhead led MSU to a No. 18 ranking and 8-4 record, including a win over Texas A&M with every victory by double-digits.

(2.) Charles Huff coached the running backs for Mississippi State, which ranked No. 21 in the nation in rushing, at 226 yards per game. MSU defensive coordinator (3.) Bob Shoop was one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach, after Bulldogs’ defense led the nation in fewest points allowed per game, at 12.0. Shoops’ defense gave up just 12 TDs in 2018, five fewer than any other team in the nation.

(4.) Herb Hand is co-offensive coordinator and O-line coach at Texas, which went 9-4 overall and 7-2 in the Big 12, including a win and loss against Oklahoma.

No one is hotter than (5.) Josh Gattis. The smart and affable former PSU WR coach is Alabama’s co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. He had a Sports Illustrated first-team All-American and Biletnikoff Award winner in Jerry Jeudy, who was also All-SEC, with 1,103 yards receiving, 12 TDs and an 18.7-yard per reception average. Overall, Tide receivers ranked No. 2 in the nation in yards per catch. With Tide OC Mike Locksley off to Maryland, Gattis’ name has been bandied about for a number of spots, including: Locksley’s play-calling successor at Alabama, Locksley’s play-caller at Maryland and a head coaching candidate at such places as Temple, Charlotte and Appalachian State. Not bad for a guy who turns 35 in January.

2. THERE’S A CATCH: Through 12 games in 2018, Penn State’s offense has completed 87 fewer passes compared to the same time in 2017 — a difference of over seven per game. Heading into the Citrus Bowl, the Nittany Lions have completed 182 passes. At the same juncture last year, they had 269 completions. After 12 games in 2016 (leading up to the Big Ten title game vs. Wisconsin and the Rose Bowl vs. USC), they had 186 completions.

3. DROPS AND DROP-OFFS: There are myriad reasons for the drop-off, including the departure of Gattis; the loss of DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki and Saquon Barkley; and diminished output from veteran receivers. Then there are the drops. In 2018, according to Pro Football Focus, Nittany Lion receivers have dropped 34 passes through 12 games — an average of 2.83 per game. In 2017, PFF reports that PSU receivers dropped 26 passes in 13 games — an average of 2.0 per game. Production also fell off this way:

Veteran wide receivers — Juwan Johnson went from 54 catches in 2017 to 23 in 2018; DeAndre Thompkins went from 28 to 21.

The Lion — Tommy Stevens had a dozen catches and two TDs in 2017 vs. two receptions for two yards in 2018.

Running back — Barkley had at least one catch in every game in 2017, with 54 overall and an 11.7-yard average; Miles Sanders averaged 6.0 yards on 22 receptions. A BIG difference: in Sanders had four games in 2018 with zero catches and five other games where he had less than 10 yards receiving. So, essentially, nine out of 12 games Sanders was a non-factor in the passing game. In losses against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, Sanders had three catches for 11 yards — combined.

Tight end — True freshman Pat Freiermuth had just four catches in the first four games of 2018, then came on to finish the regular season with 24 receptions, a 13.75-yard average and seven touchdowns. Still, PSU missed Gesicki, who had 57 catches in 2017. The Nittany Lions got only 13 total receptions in 2018 from veteran tight ends Jonathan Holland (7), Danny Dalton (3) and Nick Bowers (3) — just slightly more than their combined 11 years in the Penn State program. Not a good ratio.

4. A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM: Two key statistical leaders for Penn State in 2018 were first-year players, signs of a team in transition. Penn State’s leading receiver was redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler, with 41 receptions for a 17.4-yard average and five TDs. (Freiermuth was third.) True freshman linebacker Micah Parsons leads the Lions with 69 total tackles (including a team-high 30 assists), despite starting just one game.

5. SPEAKING OF SANDERS: It would be very surprising if Sanders did not turn pro after the Citrus Bowl. He’s in his third season at Penn State and is eligible for the NFL Draft. He has until Jan. 14 to officially declare — if he hasn’t already, but just hasn’t announced it. Sanders stiff-armed questions about this all season long, but never said “no” to going. Indications are that he is gone. In 2018, he’s run for 1,223 yards on 207 carries — a strong 5.9-yard carry. His four lost fumbles are of no big concern to the NFL. Teams love this number: only 42 yards lost all season.

Two other Nittany Lions who have NFL teams curious about whether they will declare for the draft, despite having a year of eligibility remaining: defensive end Shareef Miller and defensive tackle Robert Windsor. Miller has considered the move for awhile, while Windsor is a bit late to the party — he finished the regular season strong, with 15 tackles and six tackles for a loss/sacks over the final three games. He was second-team All-Big Ten, as selected by The Associated Press, while Miller was named to the All-Big Ten second by league votes of coaches and media. 

6. TERRY KILLENS BACK ON CAMPUS: Speaking of sacks and D-end play, Terry Killens was the featured alumni speaker at the football team’s annual banquet on Sunday afternoon, hosted by the State College Quarterback Club. In 1995, Killens co-captained a Penn State squad that went 9-3 and defeated Auburn in the Outback Bowl. He ranks second all-time for tackles for a loss in a PSU season, with 24 that year, as he added 11 sacks in ’95, tied for 10th all-time.

As a senior, Killens was literally the X-factor for the PSU defense. “They created a new position for me that year — part-linebacker, part-defensive end,” Killens told me when we talked two weeks ago. “They couldn’t think of a name for it, so they called it the X Linebacker. They gave me cart blanche as to what I wanted to do — they just said, ‘Go make something happen.’ ”

The 1995 season had its challenges. “That year, I had some loss in my life since my mother passed away,” Killens said. “As a result, I just had a focus where I wasn’t thinking about life after college, I was just in that moment. I knew I had an opportunity and I wanted to take advantage of that.” And he did, parlaying that season into a seven-year career in the NFL.

7. MATHLETE JOHN URSCHEL ON CBS-TV: Three people have sent me a link to an excellent CBS feature on John Urschel, always a good representative of Penn State, on and off the field. Passing it along…click here to watch it.

8. A TRACE MORE THAN D.J.: With one game to play, Trace McSorley has already run for 723 yards. That’s exactly how many yards running backs D.J. Dozier had to lead the 11-1 Nittany Lions in rushing in 1985. And more than Dozier had in 1984, when he led PSU in rushing with 691 yards.

Over the past 35 years, McSorley’s 2018 season total is equal to or more than nine Penn State running backs had to lead their team in rushing for a season the others: Dozier in 1984 and 1985; Gary Brown, 689 (1988); Leroy Thompson, 573 (1990); Curtis Enis, 683 (1995); Eric McCoo, 692 (2000); Larry Johnson, 327 (2001); Austn Scott, 436 (2003); and Akeel Lynch, 678 (2014).

And three more are in sight, if McSorley hits his rushing average of 60 yards per game in the Citrus Bowl: McCoo, 739 (1999); Tony Hunt, 777 (2004); and Richie Anderson, 779 (1991).

9. MORE TRACE, FOR STARTERS: When McSorley starts against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, it will be his 40th as a PSU quarterback, tying the school record set by Tony Sacca. From 1988-91, Sacca had a starting record of 2-3, 7-2-1, 9-3 and 11-2.

10. MORE TRACE, THE CENTURY MARK: The Citrus Bowl will mark McSorley’s 100th start as a quarterback in seven seasons of football. At Briar Woods High School in northern Virginia, McSorley was 55-5 as a starter. At Penn State, he is 31-8 — a record for most victories by a PSU starting QB. That makes him 86-13, a winning percentage of .869.

11. FINISH STRONG: Over the past three seasons, Penn State is 11-2 in November and December (3-1 in both 2017 and ’18, 5-0 in 2016).

12. A JAMES FOR ALL SEASONS: Under Franklin, Penn State has won in August, September, October, November, December and January. Of Franklin’s 45 wins as a Penn State head coach, nearly a third have come against Rutgers (5), Indiana (5) and Maryland (4). He’s won against all 13 Big Ten opponents and the only teams that he has not defeated at least once in his tenure at Penn State are one-offs vs Georgia (TaxSlayer Bowl) and USC (Rose Bowl).

13. MORE ON THAT: Both losses were by one score — 24-17 vs Georgia and 52-49 vs. USC. In five seasons at Penn State, Franklin is 15-12 (.555) in games decided by seven points or less. Included in that record is a 3-1 mark in overtime games. By season: 4-4 in 2014; 2-2 in 2015; 4-2 in 2016; 2-2 in 2017; and 3-2 in 2018.

14. RANKED OPPONENTS: Kentucky is ranked No. 14 heading into the Citrus Bowl against No. 12 Penn State. As a head coach, Franklin is 5-16 vs. Top 25 teams — 1-5 at Vanderbilt and 5-11 at Penn State, including a 2-4 mark in his last six games.

15. PINEGAR’S PINNACLE: After a shaky 3 of 7 start to the 2018 season, PSU freshman place-kicker Jake Pinegar made 12 of his next 14 attempts (85.7%). That includes field goals from 42, 44, 44 and 49 (twice) yards. 

16. A QUARTER’S EFFORT: In the third quarter of the first three games of the 2018 season Penn State scored 51 total points (21, 16, 14). Over the final nine games, in the third quarter the Nittany Lions scored only 36 total points — an average of just 4.0 per game — and they were shut out four times (by Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Rutgers). So much for half-time adjustments and locker room speeches.

17. PHAREWELL PHIL: Phil Esten — Penn State’s deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer — heads off to icier pastures when the new year begins. And that will mean a new boss for Franklin. Esten came to Penn State in 2014 from Cal, where he worked with PSU athletic Sandy Barbour. Among his myriad duties at Penn State was serving as the administrator for football and, as such, was who Franklin reported to on a daily basis. Esten was a key part of the football program on a daily basis.

He’ll be the new director of athletics at the University of St. Thomas, located in the Twin Cities. Esten is a 1995 grad and former St. Thomas baseball player. The school has an over-arching athletics program, fielding teams in 20 Division III varsity sports and nearly 40 club sports, with more than a third of its undergrads competing at the varsity or club level. Esten, who has his doctorate, was an accomplished and passionate guest lecturer for a Penn State class I teach. He’ll be missed in a lot of ways.

18. DIAMONDBACK-TO-BACK: Penn State’s last Big Ten Conference game in 2018 was against Maryland on Nov. 24, a 38-3 win in Beaver Stadium. Penn State opens Big Ten play in 2019 with…Maryland — on Friday night, Sept. 27 in College Park. That’s shades of 1971-72, when Penn State finished its ’71 regular season at Tennessee (a 31-11 loss), beat Texas 30-6 in the Cotton Bowl, then opened the ’72 season back at Tennessee (a 28-21 loss).

Franklin will face a familiar foe, and maybe more than one, on the opposing sideline against the Terps next September, as he and Mike Locksley — the new Terps head coach — were on the Maryland coaching staff in 2000-02. Locksley was the running backs coach while Franklin was the wide receivers coach. (Maryland went 5-6, 10-3 and 11-3 those three seasons.)

Chris Beatty could still be with the Terps then as well. In 2017-18, he was Maryland’s associate head, co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. In 2011, Beatty coached the wide receivers at Vanderbilt under Franklin, CJF’s his first year at Vandy. Beatty left after that season to be the co-offensive coordinator/QB coach at Illinois (and Franklin subsequently hired Josh Gattis at Vanderbilt). Beatty was at Illinois for one season, in 2012, and worked there with current PSU safeties coach Tim Banks, who was the defensive coordinator of the Illini squad that year which lost to Penn State 35-7 in a big grudge match after Illinois’ coaches came to the Penn State campus to poach players during the scandal.

Beatty has been with the Terps the past two seasons, when the Nittany Lions defeated Maryland twice, by an aggregate 104-6.

Call it the circle of football life.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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