By Sally Fahey

Penn State opens in Happy Valley on August 31 with Idaho, and here’s out outlook for 2019:

2018 Record: 9-4, 6-3 Big Ten East

Bowl Result: Lost to Kentucky 27-24 in Citrus Bowl

Head Coach: James Franklin (45-21 in 7thseason at Penn State, 69-38 in 10thyear overall)

For most teams a 9-4 season is a good year, but it was somewhat disappointing for Penn State. They were 0-3 in their major Big Ten East games, losing to Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. Two of those losses were by 5 total points, so they were close to winning the East even with the 42-7 loss at Michigan. There were some close calls, however. They were taken to overtime by Appalachian State in the opener and only beat Rutgers 20-7 in a game where they looked disinterested at best.

The bowl game was interesting. Penn State trailed 27-7 entering the fourth quarter but scored 17 straight points to make a game of it. Needing a touchdown with 4:12 left they strangely elected to kick a field goal instead of going for it. The kick was good, but Kentucky ran off most of the clock before a desperation final play.

This year we can expect more of the same for Penn State. They expect to compete for the Big Ten East title. They have a relatively easy non-conference schedule with Idaho, Buffalo, and Pitt all coming to Happy Valley before going to Maryland. They’ll probably be 4-0 when Purdue comes to town.

Penn State Offense

This is going to be a transition year for Penn State’s offense, as they lost six starters. Among them was long-time incumbent QB Trace McSorley. The sixth round Ravens pick is off to the NFL, and Tommy Stevens transferred away. This leaves sophomore Sean Clifford as the most likely starter. Clifford attempted 7 passes last season, completing five for 195 yards and two touchdowns. One was a 95-yard TD pass against Kent State.

Clifford has some weapons to rely on with top returning receiver KJ Hamler back. Hamler caught 42 passes for 754 yards and 5 touchdowns. Pat Freiermuth was one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends with 26 catches for 368 yards and 8 TDs. George Campbell will join them as a graduate transfer from Florida State.

With Penn State you can always expect a strong running game, but with Miles Sanders and McSorley both gone after rushing for a combined 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns the ground game is in a bit of flux. Three starters return on the offensive line, while Ricky Slade becomes the featured back. He had 257 yards and six touchdowns last year in a limited role, but much more will be asked of him in 2019.

Penn State Defense

Overall, the Penn State defense was pretty strong last season. It held teams to 20 points or less five times, and gave up just 20 points total in the final three games against Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Maryland.

Penn State would not be Penn State without stout linebackers, and Micah Parsons is one of the best in the business. He led Penn State with 83 tackles, 5 for loss, and two forced fumbles last season. Cam Brown and Jan Johnson round out a solid trio to be the center of the defense.

The Nittany Lions lost a pair of good defensive linemen in Shareef Miller and Kevin Givens that combined for 15 sacks, the top pass rusher returns. Yetur Gross-Matos led the team with eight sacks and finished with 54 tackless overall. Shaka Toney added another five sacks and will provide pressure at the other end spot. In the middle Robert Windsor and PJ Mustipher are experienced tackles that can also get into the backfield.

In the secondary Penn State will benefit from having Garrett Taylor back at safety one of the spots. Each had three interceptions last year while Taylor was third on the team with 71 tackles. John Reid added two picks at one of the corner spots and should be pretty good as well. Overall all four starters return for a pass defense that was good last year.

Penn State Special Teams

In the kicking game Jake Pinegar had a decent freshman season, hitting on 16 of 24 field goal attempts and 53 of 55 PATs. He had a long of 49 yards, so he has plenty of range even if the accuracy isn’t quite there. Inside 40 yards he was almost automatic (11 of 13). Blake Gillikin was also a solid punter, averaging 43.9 yards per punt.

In the return game Hamler handled most kicks last year, while Penn State must replace DeAndre Thompkins, who was an excellent punt returner with a 9.78 yard average and a touchdown.

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