After an 11-2 season that saw Penn State lose by a combined four points, expectations for 2018 were high. They were losing superstar running back Saquon Barkley and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, but Trace McSorley was back with weapons like Miles Sanders around him ready to compete for the Big Ten title in 2018.
The 2018 season did not go as many would have hoped. They started off with a tight overtime win over Appalachian State before blowing out Pitt, Kent State, and Illinois in consecutive weeks. They then lost by one to Ohio State and were upset by four by Michigan State in back to back weeks. They won two one possession games over Indiana and Iowa before losing 42-7 at Michigan to fall to three losses.
Penn State won their last three games of the season before losing 27-24 to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, falling to 9-4. Their season wasn’t a failure by any measure, but it was a disappointment after expectations were to make a run at a Big Ten title.
Behind the Penn State teams that have made runs at the Big Ten championship is an electric offense, run by Trace McSorley, one of the most electric quarterbacks in the country. In 2018, he completed 53.2 percent of his passes for 2,530 yards and 18 touchdowns. He threw seven interceptions on the year as well. He ran for 798 yards and 12 touchdowns, including three against Kent State. His best game was against Ohio State, when he threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for 175 yards. He was only held to less than 100 yards once, against Michigan, but never surpassed 300 yards passing. Tommy Stevens was a solid backup who showed upside. He threw for 110 yards on the year and had a touchdown but also threw a pick six against Michigan. He ran for 118 yards, more than his passing total, and got two touchdowns. His best game on the ground was against Michigan when he got 52 yards. McSorley was named a second team all-Big Ten quarterback by both the coaches and the media, only behind Heisman Trophy finalist Dwayne Haskins out of Ohio State.
Miles Sanders took over for Saquon Barkley at running back and played well, getting 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. He racked up 200 yards against Illinois and scored three touchdowns in his best game of the year. His 162 yard explosion against Michigan State was his second of five games where he ran for more than 100 yards. He scored multiple touchdowns against Appalachian State and Illinois, but the Nittany Lions could have used him to score another touchdown against Michigan State and Ohio State, games where he scored one each. He was a solid starting running back who couldn’t quite replace Barkley’s dominance, but was still a good weapon to have. Ricky Slade was the only other back to get more than 100 yards on the year, getting 257 and six touchdowns. He ran for 94 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois, and also scored twice against Maryland.
Mark Allen, Johnathan Thomas, and Journey Brown each ran for fewer than 100 yards on the year and combined for four touchdowns. Allen scored against both Pitt and Kent State, Brown ran for 84 yards and a touchdown against Kent State, and Brown scored against Illinois. Brown also had a 94 yard reception against Indiana, but did not score a touchdown. Miles Sanders was a second team all-Big Ten honoree by both the coaches and the media.
KJ Hamler was by far the most electric receiver and the best weapon for McSorley this season. He had 754 yards receiving on the year and scored five touchdowns. He had 138 receiving yards and a touchdown against Ohio State. That was the only game where he got more than 100 yards receiving, but came close against Iowa, when he got 96, and Maryland, when he got 90. He also ran the ball four times for 44 yards and a touchdown. Juwan Johnson ended the year with 352 yards and a touchdown, but was injured for a month of the season. He scored a touchdown against Illinois and had his best day when he got 72 yards against Indiana. Had he been healthy the whole year, he could have helped the Nittany Lions more down the stretch. DeAndre Thompkins was quiet for some parts of the season, but ended up with 329 yards and two touchdowns. He got 101 yards and a touchdown against Kent State, and also scored a touchdown against Wisconsin. Jahan Dotson also ended the year with more than 200 yards, finishing with 203 and no touchdowns. His best game came against Rutgers when he had 58 yards. Brandon Polk and Daniel George were also light contributors, ending the season with three combined touchdowns. Polk scored two, one against Pitt and one against Kent State. George scored on a 95 yard pass against Kent State on his first of two receptions of the season.
Pat Freiermuth led the tight ends with 368 yards and eight touchdowns. He scored twice against Rutgers and had his highest yardage total against Michigan with 51. Jonathan Holland ended the season with 114 yards and no touchdowns. He had 53 yards against Illinois, his best total of the season. Hamler and Freiermuth were named honorable mentions in the Big Ten by both the coaches and the media.
After years of struggling, Penn State’s offensive line has finally become a strength, helping to protect McSorley and clear holes for the running game. The right side of the line, guard Connor McGovern and tackle Ryan Bates, were the two best players on the line all season. Center Michal Menet played well in his second season in the middle of the line, and the left side of the line with guard Steven Gonzalez and tackle Will Fries were solid as well. The line wasn’t as dominant as a team like Wisconsin, but was certainly an improvement over 2017, and helped the Nittany Lions score as many points as they did this season. McGovern and Bates were voted to the third team all-Big Ten by both the coaches and media, and Gonzalez was named an honorable mention by both the coaches and media.
Penn State had a strong offense for much of 2018, but they struggled at times. In their four losses, the offense did not produce at the level they needed to win. Three of their losses were close, losing by one to Ohio State, four to Michigan State, and three to Penn State. They did not score more than 26 in these games, and needed to score more to be successful. They lost by 35 to Michigan, and their seven points scored were not enough, especially as the Michigan defense scored seven by themselves. When their offense worked, Penn State was dangerous, but it stuttered at times, and that’s when they lost.
Penn State allowed 20.0 points per game in 2018, and their defensive line helped in that effort. Yetur Gross-Matos led the line at defensive end. He ended the season with 54 tackles, 20 for loss, and eight sacks. He also forced two fumbles and recovered one. He broke double digits once with 10 tackles against Indiana, a game he also had two sacks in. He had nine tackles, four for loss, and two sacks the next week against Iowa. Shareef Miller was another solid end for Penn State, getting 41 tackles, 15 for loss, and 7.5 sacks. He had his highest amount of tackles, eight, against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. He had multiple sacks twice, when he got two against Kent State and Wisconsin. He also recovered a fumble in the Wisconsin game.
Robert Windsor was reliable on the interior of the line, getting 38 tackles, 10 for loss, and 6.5 sacks on the season. He had six tackles against Wisconsin and Rutgers, his highest total of the season. He also had two sacks against Wisconsin and a sack and a forced fumble against Rutgers. Another defensive tackle, Kevin Givens, performed similarly to Windsor in 2018. He ended the season with 33 tackles, ten for loss, and five sacks. He had two sacks in each of the final two games of the season, against Maryland and Kentucky. PJ Mustipher, Antonio Shelton, and Daniel Joseph were solid contributors to the defensive line, each getting just over ten tackles on the season. Mustipher forced a fumble against Indiana and Joseph recovered one against Rutgers. Yetur Gross-Matos was named a third team all-Big Ten lineman by the coaches and named to the first team by the media. Miller was named to the third team by both the coaches and the media. Windsor was named an honorable mention by both the coaches and the media.
Penn State’s linebackers were more productive than their defensive line counterparts. Micah Parsons led the team with 82 tackles, adding four for loss and 1.5 sacks. The true freshman broke double digit tackles once, against Kentucky with 13. He also forced a fumble in that game and the Rutgers game, when he recorded his only full sack of the season. Jan Johnson was second on the team in tackles, ending up with 72, 1.5 for loss, and 0.5 sacks. He had two games with double digit tackles, with 11 in the opener against Appalachian State and 10 against Michigan. He had his only full tackle for loss against Michigan as well and had an interception against Illinois. Cameron Brown had 63 tackles, 6.5 for loss, and two sacks on the season. His eight tackles against Indiana were his highest total of the season. He also forced a fumble against Illinois, Iowa, and Maryland.
Koa Farmer was a solid addition to Penn State’s linebacker group, ending the season with 52 tackles and 2.5 for loss. His best game was against Rutgers when he ended with eight tackles and one for loss. He also forced a fumble against Iowa. In his first year on the field, Ellis Brooks was a solid backup. He ended the season with 30 tackles, 1.5 for loss, and 0.5 sacks. His best game was against Illinois, when he had six tackles, 0.5 sacks, and a 28 yard interception return. Jesse Luketa and Jarvis Miller were also solid contributors for Penn State. They each had seven tackles on the year, and Miller recovered a fumble against Pittsburgh. Parsons was named an honorable mention by the Big Ten media, the only honoree from an underrated group.
Penn State saw solid defensive back play this season, especially from safety Garrett Taylor. Taylor had 71 tackles, 2.5 for loss, three interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. He had ten tackles, his highest total, in the Citrus Bowl against Kentucky. He had a 45 yard interception return against Ohio State, a 37 yard interception return against Michigan State, and another interception against Rutgers. He forced a fumble against Michigan State and recovered one the next week against Indiana. Nick Scott, another safety, was a big contributor for the defense. He had 65 tackles and a sack in addition to three interceptions and a fumble recovery. He had nine tackles and a sack against Appalachian State, his highest amount of tackles. He also had three interceptions in four games against Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin, and recovered a fumble against Indiana. Jonathan Sutherland also was a solid safety with 38 tackles, two for loss, and a forced fumble. He had eight tackles against Illinois, but his best game came against Indiana, when he had seven tackles and forced a fumble.
Amani Oruwariye was the best cornerback on the team, ending the year with 50 tackles, one for loss, three interceptions, and a forced fumble. He had his highest amount of tackles against Indiana with nine in addition to interceptions against Appalachian State, Pittsburgh, and Wisconsin. He also forced a fumble against Appalachian State. Tariq Castro-Fields was another good corner, ending with 32 tackles, five for loss, and a sack. His highest amount of tackles was five against Pittsburgh. He also added 1.5 tackles for loss against Maryland and Kentucky. John Reid was another solid contributor, ending the season with 24 tackles, one for loss, and a two interceptions. He had eight tackles, his most of the season, against Indiana, and added a 44 yard interception return against Iowa. He also had an interception against Rutgers. Donovan Johnson and Zech McPhearson were solid corners as well for Penn State, ending which around ten tackles. Oruwariye was named a first team all-Big Ten defensive back by both the coaches and the media. Taylor and Reid were named honorable mentions by both the coaches and media. Scott was named an honorable mention by the media.
The Penn State defense was solid, and did enough for Penn State to win nine games, but could have done more to compliment an offense that scored 45 points per game. Allowing 20 points per game, like Penn State did, is good, but that number is a bit misleading. The defense was always good, but outside of blowout wins over Pittsburgh and Kent State, was never dominating, and that led to losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, when the opponent was able to either stay in the game or come back to win. That also leads to losses like the one to Michigan, where the Wolverines were able to score 42 straight points, including 28 in a row in the second half, before Penn State scored late. Against Kentucky, the Nittany Lions were outscored 17-0 in the third quarter after trailing 10-7 at halftime, giving them almost no chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. For Penn State to take the next step, they need to improve defensively to give their offense a chance.
Special teams could be an issue at times for Penn State, particularly in place kicking. True freshman Jake Pinegar took over these duties, and went 16 for 24 on field goals. He was 53 for 55 on extra points as well. Blake Gillikin was the punter, and was pretty good, averaging 44 yards on 64 punts. KJ Hamler was the main kick returner, ending the season with 523 yards on 20 returns. He also returned a few punts, getting 96 yards on 14 returns. Johnathan Thomas also returned a couple kicks, getting 113 yards on three returns. DeAndre Thompkins was the main punt returner, ending the season with 176 yards on 18 returns and a touchdown against Pittsburgh.
Most of the special teams issues were in the kicking game. Pinegar was pretty good on extra points, and his two misses didn’t impact the team too much because they won both games where he missed a kick. He misses eight field goals, though, and some of those were big. He missed a field goal against Ohio State, a game the Nittany Lions lost 27-26. Had he made that kick, they may have won the game, and the trajectory of their season might have been a lot different. He also missed a field goal against Michigan State in a 21-17 loss. His missed kick came at a part of the game when they were tied at 14 with the Spartans, and a made kick may have changed the momentum of the game. His missed kicks were big, and he will need to improve for Penn State to get better in 2018.
Penn State was a pretty good team in 2018, but their season will be defined by a series of “almosts.” They almost beat Michigan State and Ohio State, which means that they almost won the Big Ten. They almost beat Kentucky, which would have put them at ten wins. They had weapons on offense with McSorley and Sanders, and they should have been a little better than 9-4. To take the next step, guys will need to step up on both sides of the ball and help to replace McSorley, Sanders, and other top players. The defense will need to see an improvement, otherwise they will continue to be defined by “almosts.”
Final AP Ranking (Preseason): 17 (10)
Final Coaches Poll Ranking (Preseason): 17 (9)
Offensive MVP: Trace McSorley
Defensive MVP: Amani Oruwariye