By Harry Allison
Saquon Barkley is the leader in the Heisman race.
But Penn State had Barkley a year ago — roughly this good as a sophomore, if without the national fanfare and attention.
The offense is more experienced. It took some time for second-year coordinator Joe Moorhead’s scheme to grab hold last fall, in a learning curve that began with baby steps in the early offseason but didn’t culminate until late October. Since that point, the system has yielded balance: While rivals Ohio State and Michigan misfire, the Nittany Lions mix the run and pass better than any team in the Big Ten.
“It’s kind of completely different from last year,” quarterback Trace McSorley said. “It really is night and day at this point of the year.”
This experience — and growing confidence — was on display a week ago, during the team’s game-winning touchdown drive to escape from Iowa. But the Hoosiers’ game plan for Penn State wasn’t complicated: Focus on slowing down Barkley and force McSorley to keep the football. That it wasn’t entirely successful — McSorley still threw for 315 yards and accounted for three scores — doesn’t mean it isn’t replicable, and potentially achievable with the right mix of personnel.
Part of the issue stems from the offensive line. It’s been a concern throughout Franklin’s tenure, especially in the early going, and while improvement has been made there’s still room to get dramatically better. It’s not hard to think of the Nittany Lions’ group and reflect on January, when Ohio State’s equally questionable unit was torn to shreds by Clemson’s NFL-ready front. Any hypothetical postseason matchup against an elite opponent would be defined, at least on paper, but the play of Penn State’s line.
“There’s always room for improvement,” said sophomore lineman Ryan Bates. “There were hiccups here and there today. We can get better, obviously.”
The biggest offseason development has been the performance of the Penn State defense. One of the Big Ten’s bottom-half units a year ago, the Nittany Lions have rebounded to stand among the league’s best through one month: Penn State entered Saturday ranked second in the conference and eighth nationally in yards allowed per play.
The offense has made headlines — and not just this fall but for the past calendar year, as Moorhead’s system went from a work in progress to the main aspect of this program’s personality. Again, Barkley makes the offense hard to ignore. But it’s the defense and not the offense that stands the national-caliber test.
“I’m pleased with the progress that we’re making there. We’re playing really good defense,” Franklin said.
A complete game — meaning a game that cements this team’s place as one of the best in the FBS — is still elusive. The Nittany Lions fit that bill in the first quarter, and then again in the fourth. Even Franklin would admit that the second and third quarters fell short of the standard.
“We have to be able to play for four quarters at a very, very high level,” he said. There’s areas that we have get better. For where we want to go and where we want to do, we have to get better. We’ve got to identify those things.”
So Penn State is better. Maybe a little more consistent. Certainly improved on defense, if still questionable along the offensive line. Whether the Nittany Lions are the fourth-best team in the country remains up for debate — and there’s something deeply meaningful about being in the top four in the era of the College Football Playoff, whether in September, October or December.
Michigan comes to Beaver Stadium on Oct. 21. The Nittany Lions travel to Ohio State a week later, followed by a road game at Michigan State. Three games will settle the debate, and when the dust clears will tell the story of Penn State’s season.
But it’s clear that an expectation has changed. One year after taking the Big Ten and reaching the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions hold themselves to a different baseline, with no greater example of this changed mindset than the nitpicking by players and coaches over the missteps in a 31-point win against a divisional foe.
That tells us something important about this team: Penn State knows very good won’t cut it in the chase for a national title. The Nittany Lions know they need to get better to take the leap from Big Ten champions to national champions.
“Every single day, if we can combine, get 1% better collectively, we’ll be a better team,” said senior linebacker Jason Cabinda. “We’ve been working towards that. We don’t take this for granted.”