Calling their shots: Is 2020 the year Penn State delivers on promises from Micah Parsons and James Franklin?
Micah Parsons called his shot last spring. While everyone expected Penn State to enter a rebuilding year, the star linebacker told reporters that the Nittany Lions would surprise people. He wasn’t convinced the program was going to take a step back, despite losing a plethora of talent.
It was like Babe Ruth pointing to the center-field wall in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. And just like the Great Bambino launched a curveball 440 feet over the fences at Wrigley Field, Penn State delivered on Parson’s promise, finishing with an 11-2 record and a victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.
Parsons made another guarantee before the start of the 2019 season, too. He put a two-year window on Penn State’s timetable to reach the College Football Playoff. Before the linebacker leaves State College, he wants to be competing for a national championship.
“We have so much speed, young guys, and juice that in the next two years you’re going to definitely see us in the national playoffs, if not this year,” Parsons told PennLive last spring. “I think it’s going to get scary for the B1G.”
Penn State’s surprising 11-2 finish has catapulted the program into the way-too-early College Football Playoff conversation. Not only are the Nittany Lions a challenger to back-to-back-to-back B1G champion Ohio State, they’re a legitimate national championship contender.
Nearly 80 percent of PSU’s offensive production returns
Penn State returns 78.5 percent of its offensive production from a season ago, including running backs Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, as well as quarterback Sean Clifford, tight end Pat Freiermuth and wide receiver Jahan Dotson. Those six accounted for 45 of the Nittany Lions’ 61 touchdowns last fall.
It’s a pretty good foundation for the offense.
Sure, there are still some important concerns James Franklin is going to have to address in spring practice and fall camp. It won’t all be candy and nuts in Happy Valley.
Catching passes was an issue for the Nittany Lions last season, and with leading receiver KJ Hamler (904 yards, eight touchdowns) gone to the NFL Draft, a group that is young and inexperienced is going to need to step up in a big way. Freiermuth will be a primary target in the passing attack and Dotson will slip into the No. 1 receiver role after totaling 488 yards and five touchdowns a year ago.
Beyond those two, Penn State’s receiver situation is a bit of a mystery. But Franklin has assembled an almost-perfect offensive staff to fix some of those potential issues, bringing in Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator and Taylor Stubblefield to coach wide receivers.
Ciarrocca called the plays at Minnesota last fall, the mastermind behind one of the most prolific passing attacks in college football. By the end of the season, receivers Tyler Johnson (1,318 yards) and Rashod Bateman (1,219) ranked as the top two pass-catchers in the B1G. Tanner Morgan totaled 3,252 passing yards and 30 touchdowns while completing 66 percent of his throws.
Stubblefield, a former All-American receiver at Purdue in the early 2000s, brings over a decade of coaching experience to the sideline.
All-American talent back on defense
Immediately following the Cotton Bowl win, Parsons found himself in the All-American conversation. After receiving the game’s MVP honors for recording 14 tackles, three stops for loss and two forced fumbles, the rising junior linebacker received incredible praise from defensive coordinator Brent Pry.
“You’re going to have to show me a defensive player that’s better than Micah Parsons going into the next football season,” Pry said.
Parsons finished the 2019 with 109 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five pass break-ups and four forced fumbles. Not only will Pry look to his veteran linebacker for leadership, he’ll be the anchor for the Nittany Lions defense.
Despite losing sack leader Yetur Gross-Matos, defensive back John Reid, linebacker Jan Johnson and defensive tackle Robert Windsor, the cupboard is hardly bare for Penn State next season. Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney are an incredible pair of defensive ends, combining for 11.5 sacks a season ago. Defensive back Tariq Castro-Fields intercepted two passes and Lamont Wade tallied 67 stops with five pass break-ups.
If the talent wasn’t enough, Penn State’s defense has traditionally been one of the best in the conference since Pry took over as defensive coordinator in 2016. Each of the last three seasons, the Nittany Lions have ranked in the top four of the conference in scoring defense, and has finished in the top three in forced turnovers in 2017 and 2019.
Much like it was in 2019, Penn State’s defense has all the pieces to be one of the B1G’s top units in 2020.
Penn State’s pass defense must get better next fall, after finishing 13th in the conference last season. The Nittany Lions allowed 251.5 yards per game through the air and intercepted just 10 passes. That’s the area that Pry must figure out by the start of the season.
Everything is in place for a College Football Playoff run
Two years ago, following a one-point home loss to Ohio State in front of a White Out crowd, Franklin passionately pounded his fist on the table and proclaimed his program wouldn’t be satisfied with the status quo. The next step in his journey at Penn State was to restore the brand into blueblood status.
“Right now, we’re comfortable being great. I’m going to make sure that everybody in my program, including myself, is very uncomfortable,” Franklin said in 2018 after the loss to the Buckeyes. “And I will find a way, we will find a way…we are going to get this done. I give you my word. We are going to find a way to take the next step. We are done being great.”
Penn State has already won one B1G title under Franklin (2016) and has been knocking on the door to win several others. The program has been left on the outside of the College Football Playoff, a few points shy of finally getting its chance to compete for a national title.
Not to rub salt in the wound, but of Penn State’s seven regular season losses since winning the B1G in 2016, five have come by one possession.
The 2020 season seems like the opportune time for Penn State to deliver on the promises made by Franklin and Parsons over the last two seasons. If 2019 was deemed a “rebuilding year” for the Nittany Lions, the ceiling for the seventh year of the Franklin era in State College is unbelievably high.
Penn State has the benefit of playing Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State on its home turf. The toughest road games comes on Sept. 12 against Virginia Tech and an Oct. 3 showdown with Michigan in Ann Arbor — which has not been a friendly venue for the Blue and White. The road isn’t easy — it never is in the B1G East — but it’s about as favorable as one could ask.
Everything is in place in Happy Valley. The staff, the talent, the experience and even the schedule. There may not be a better opportunity for Penn State to climb back into college football’s elite status.
Parsons called his shot in spring 2019. He might get his walk-off moment in 2020.