10 bold predictions for Penn State in 2020
No one could have predicted the type of offseason the Big Ten and college football had, but alas we are finally ready for kickoff (tentatively).
Penn State finished 2019 11-2 overall and second in the Big Ten East with a berth in the Cotton Bowl, a great year by many standards but disappointing nonetheless to those in Happy Valley.
Is 2020 finally the year James Franklin beats Ohio State and makes the College Football Playoff? Only time will tell, but here are 10 things that will happen, for sure.
1. Pat Freiermuth finishes third in program history for receiving TDs
Freiermuth is already tied with Mike Gesicki for most receiving touchdowns by a tight end (15) and will need to score 7 more to tie Deon Butler for third on the school’s all-time leaderboard. Last season Freiermuth emerged as Sean Clifford’s favorite security blanket, especially in the red zone. With a shortened offseason, expect Clifford to find the 6-5 target early and often before Clifford develops more chemistry with his young wideouts.
2. Run defense finishes No. 1 in the Big Ten … again
The Nittany Lions led the conference last year, allowing 95.0 yards a game, and there’s no reason to believe there will be much of a drop-off this season, even while losing Yetur Gross-Matos and Micah Parsons. Jayson Oweh will be a freak off the edge, and the linebacker group will more than hold its own in the second level. It also helps that Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins aren’t on the schedule this year.
3. Jayson Oweh plays his way into a top-12 pick in the NFL Draft
With the exception of Gregory Rousseau, who opted out of this season at Miami, Oweh very well could be the next edge rusher off the board. The 6-foot-5, 257-pound rusher with a 4.33 40 played in less than 40 percent of Penn State defensive snaps in 2019 but still recorded 5 sacks and 21 tackles. He spent the summer training with Parsons in California and has arguably the highest ceiling of any defensive player in college football.
4. The linebacker group doesn’t skip a beat
All three starting LBs are gone from 2019, but if there was ever a group totally ready to step up, it’s the current crop of linebackers that Franklin recruited in 2017 and ’18. Obviously Micah Parsons is a huge loss, but word around the program is that Jesse Luketa is more than ready to fill the role vacated by No. 11. Ellis Brooks is a 4-star who will start at the Mike, and Brandon Smith was a 5-star and top linebacker in the 2018 class who will fill in nicely at the Sam. Expect Lance Dixon and Charlie Katshir to more than adequately fill in as needed.
5. Sean Clifford finishes second in Big Ten passing
Arguably the biggest addition to any program in the conference this offseason came with the hiring of OC Kirk Ciarrocca away from Minnesota. Clifford finished 2019 seventh in yards per game (221.2) and with a completion percentage south of 60 (59.2). Now match Clifford with Ciarrocca, an older Freiermuth and the potential of a few young wideouts, and it’s possible the second-year starter jumps closer to 250 yards a game, more than what Justin Fields will average, but behind Tanner Morgan at Minnesota.
6. Kirk Ciarrocca becomes a hot commodity on the coaching carousel
If Ciarrocca comes anywhere close to his 2019 act of producing the conference’s leading passer and two leading receivers, expect his name to come up for several head coaching vacancies across the country. The tools are there for a Nittany Lions’ offense with the Big Ten’s best tight end and running back; it’s just a matter of how long it’ll take to click with the limited offseason.
7. Journey Brown leads the Big Ten in TDs
Brown finished third in the B1G last season with 13 TDs, well behind Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins, who are both gone. He did that while only taking around 40 percent of the team’s running back carries and only catching 15 passes. Ciarrocca expects to get the running backs more involved in the passing game this season, and Ricky Slade is no longer there to take some of the carries. Penn State’s offensive line should also be better behind the leadership of Michal Menet.
8. Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh combine for at least 12 sacks
Last season the duo combined for 11.5 sacks with Oweh coming off the bench, but that was obviously over a 13-game sample size. Oweh may garner all the headlines, but Toney, a redshirt senior, is the leader of the line coming off a 2019 season in which he earned All-Big Ten honors for his work opposite Yetur Gross-Matos. Toney has the program record of 4 sacks in a single game and will be a headache for offensive lines already concerned with Oweh.
9. Jordan Stout becomes a touchback machine
Perhaps the best-kept secret weapon at Penn State is the junior kicker with a cannon leg. Only used for long-range kicks (i.e. his program record 57-yard FG against Pitt), Stout is best off the tee. Look no farther than his 12 touchbacks against Idaho last year. In 2018 at Virginia Tech, Stout finished fourth in the FBS with 84.5 percent of his kickoffs resulting in a touchback, and last season for the Nittany Lions, 79.5 percent of his 83 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, again fourth in the FBS. Look for him to be busy this year with all of Penn State’s scoring and edge closer to 90 percent unreturned kickoffs.
10. A Big Ten championship, but no CFP
2016 all over again? Unfortunately so. Penn State pulls the early upset over the Buckeyes as both teams are still yet to hit their full stride. But look for the Nittany Lions to drop one of those November games in the three-game stretch against Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan, while Ohio State finishes the season without any additional damage. The CFP selection committee opts to go with the Buckeyes in the Playoff based on the eye test, and Penn State is left with the Rose Bowl.