The fan zone
(EDITOR’S NOTE — During the next few weeks, Times News reporters will be talking to area sports fans to get their thoughts and predictions about various topics that are currently in the news.)
It has been hard to ignore the Penn State football team heading into the 2017 season.
The Nittany Lions are coming off a remarkable – if not improbable – run to a Big Ten title, possess a backfield that features two potential Heisman Trophy candidates, and are equipped with a bevy of playmakers that can kick the offense into overdrive at anytime.
After finishing 2016 as one of the hottest teams in the country, Happy Valley is buzzing.
Penn State’s return to prominence has area fans eager to see if the team can take another step forward this fall.
“This is the year that I think we can make the big run,” said Bruce Tredinnick, a 1965 Penn State graduate from Jim Thorpe. “Last year, I think we could have even actually gone to the playoffs, and probably won it all.
“We were very capable, and demonstrated that during the year, by winning all those close games.”
Few remember how last season began, with the Nittany Lions stumbling out of the gate. After a 49-10 drubbing at Michigan on Sept. 24 dropped Penn State to 2-2, many fans were calling for head coach James Franklin’s job.
There was no hype. There were only questions.
“Like a lot of people, I thought we were a year or two away,” said Tredinnick.
But a 29-26 overtime victory against Minnesota at home the following week kick started an eight-game winning streak to close the regular season, one that included a stunning 24-21 win over Ohio State on Oct. 22.
Penn State closed the season with a 38-31 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, before falling to USC 52-49 in the Rose Bowl.
Much of last year’s turnaround was driven by a record-setting offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley (3,614 passing yards, 29 touchdowns) and running back Saquon Barkley (1,496 yards, 18 touchdowns) rewrote the school’s record books in offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s first season.
Barkley, McSorley and the rest of the Nittany Lions playmakers might have surprised some on their way to an 11-3 season a year ago.
Fans know the team won’t enjoy the same luxury this season.
“I honestly believe that anytime a team is underestimated, and they come in and they upset other teams, people start watching and paying attention,” said Phil Miller, a Palmerton native who now lives in Nesquehoning. “I do believe that they have to be better prepared for teams this year, and the only way that they’re going to be able to be in a Top 5 position at the end of the season is if they give it 100-percent every game, because people are going to be coming after them.”
An offense that averaged 37.6 points-per-game a year ago and returns two of its biggest pieces in Barkley and McSorley should have no problem answering the bell each week.
But what about the defense? Penn State allowed a staggering 47.7 points-per-game in losses to Pitt, Michigan and USC.
“I definitely see them in a Top 5 position.,” said Miller. “I definitely believe they can be a strong, powerhouse team if their defense can improve a little bit more. For years, Penn State has always had a strong defense, they just didn’t have a high-powered offense to go with it.
“With what they showed last year, I believe now they do have a high-powered offense.”
If Penn State can handle the hype and take care of business during the regular season, a possible return to the Big Ten Championship Game looms on Dec. 2.
The pieces of the puzzle are in place. Now it’s time to watch it come together.
“I believe Penn State will be either undefeated or have one loss in regular season play,” said Tredinnick. “Our offensive line is strong, experienced and two-deep. Barkley will rush for over 1,700 yards, and add at least 500 more as a receiver. McSorley, the little quarterback that could and did, will have an even better year this year.”
Miller was cautiously optimistic when forecasting the Nittany Lions’ chances this season.
“I see them being at least a 9-2 team this year, as long as they can get their defense to improve on last year,” Miller said. “I believe that, if a couple plays go to their favor in bigger games, like against Ohio State and Michigan, they have a strong opportunity to be able to upset the teams that people are saying they’re not gonna win against, I think they can take them, if they improve on their defense.
“Obviously, they’re going to need a little bit of help, too. If a couple plays go their way, they might be able to come out of the Big Ten season undefeated.”