Penn State couldn’t instantaneously parlay its awesome freshman class into elite status. The program remains a rung or 2 below division mates Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten. So for the negative nellies, there’s your red meat.

The Nittany Lions left nothing else to complain about in 2022, far exceeding preseason projections to finish 10-2 and ranked in the top 10 as they await their bowl destination. They saved the best for last, dominating the 4 teams below them in the B1G East by a combined score of 165-40 on successive Saturdays in November.

The program improved as the season went along, both because the young talent matured and because the competition waned. The overall takeaway is that the program is progressing and flashing promise as James Franklin wraps up his 9th year in Happy Valley. Let’s break it down:

Freshman RBs set the tone

It took them 1 game to get moving. Neither 5-star Nick Singleton nor 4-star Kaytron Allen did much in the opener at Purdue, each netting 31 rushing yards.

Singleton busted out the next week with 179 yards on just 10 carries, including a 70-yard touchdown. That ended the program’s streak of games without a 100-yard back at 17. After another 124 yards at Auburn, Singleton was among the nation’s leaders in yards per carry and runs of 40+ yards, generating quite the buzz. After going for 78 vs. Michigan State, he’s 59 yards short of 1,000 with a bowl game remaining.

Allen complements his classmate with a more patient, power-based style that has produced a pair of 100-yard outings and 830 yards on the season.

After major questions at the position the past 2 seasons, running back should be a strength for the next 2.

An O-line renaissance

The offensive line not only has helped the vastly improved run game, it also has protected the quarterbacks better and better as the season has gone on. The guys up front have allowed just 18 sacks after surrendering a league-worst 34 a year ago.

The arc of success has survived the loss of 3 starters and been so pronounced that 1 of those 3, left tackle Olu Fashanu, is being talked about as a potential 1st-round NFL Draft pick at just 19 years old. All of the linemen have the option to return in 2023, so this could be the start of a turnaround for the group under 3rd-year position coach Phil Trautwein. And if some do leave, the Lions have 2 linemen who are top-60 national recruits fronting their next freshman class.

Offensive scheme has shifted

With more ground game pieces to work with, offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has continued to adapt Penn State to a more run-based attack. That’s a good thing given both the weather and style of play prevalent in the Big Ten.

Using less shotgun, more tight ends and varied situational sets — most notably the full-house backfield/T-formation — Yurcich has made progress in short-yardage and red zone situations. The Lions have 25 rushing touchdowns this year after only 11 last year. Both Singleton (10) and Allen (9) have eclipsed the previous freshman record of 8 rushing TDs, and each also has a receiving TD.

The tight ends have not only provided crucial blocking all season long, Brenton Strange, Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren all have upped their receptions and yards from 2021 as well. The quarterbacks are running less often but more effectively.

The changes have not only jump-started this season, but set the stage for the next couple seasons as well.

Depth matters

Joey Porter misses time, the secondary doesn’t miss a beat. The whole left side of the offensive line goes down, true freshman Drew Shelton steps up and others fill in. The offense keeps rolling. The defense has had upwards of 25 players making tackles in a game on more than one occasion.

With a freshman class more ready for the rigors of college football than any previous class under Franklin, Penn State has built up its depth at almost every position group. Heading into 2023, only the receivers room seems to be short of proven talent.

Abdul Carter arrives

Shh. We’re not supposed to say this about a true freshman.

Abdul Carter is Penn State’s best player. Period. The 6-3, 235-pound bolt of lightning out of Philadelphia should be the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, though teammate Nick Singleton might take the award because of offensive bias.

Wearing No. 11, Carter looks every bit the part of former Penn State great and weekly NFL highlight creator Micah Parsons. The recruiting services missed on this one; 4 stars weren’t enough to describe this guy’s potential coming out of high school.

He’s must-watch TV, like Parson a guy who makes wow plays. The numbers don’t do justice to the video, but Carter leads the Lions with 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. He ranks 2nd in tackles and QB hurries. He’s broken up 4 passes, all plays where he engulfed the opposing quarterback and swatted the ball down from close range.

Like the freshman running backs, Carter is just getting started and has huge upside.

Ji’Ayir Brown goes out strong

On the other end of the age spectrum from Carter, we have Penn State’s most valuable player, safety Ji’Ayir Brown. Tig, as he’s called, is leading the Lions in solo tackles and interceptions for the second straight season. Beyond that, he just leads the Lions. While Penn State rotates a ton of players on defense, they all seem to play better when Brown is on the field with them. That’s why Brown has played more defensive snaps than anybody this season, according to Franklin.

Wherever Brown gets drafted — in should be within the first 2 rounds — some NFL team is going to get one heck of a bargain. On the field and in the locker room, Brown has proven to be one hell of a leader these past 2 years since joining Penn State from the JUCO ranks.

Coaching staff has jelled

Every position group seems to be on an upswing right now. The stats for the wide receivers have dropped off a bit because of the change in offensive approach, but Parker Washington (pre-injury) and transfer Mitchell Tinsley were solid as can be under the tutelage of Taylor Stubblefield. It’s a no-brainer that Ja’Juan Seider (RBs), Ty Howle (TEs), Anthony Poindexter (safeties) and Terry M. Smith (CBs) are welcome to stay as long as they like.

New DC Manny Diaz has been a smash hit, maximizing the talents of Carter, Brown and others. First-year special teams leader Stacy Collins’ units have had some hiccups in recent weeks, but nothing egregious. Yurcich’s offense is scoring more than 35 points per game, up 10 per game over a year ago. The 2nd-year coordinator has added a variety of sets, using extra linemen, bunch formations and a full-house backfield to great effect. His scheme has taken some pressure off the previously beleaguered line.

This is a group of coaches fans should be wanting to stick together. And because of that, the maestro, Franklin, deserves credit as well. If his big breakthrough is going to come, it’ll happen in the next 2 years. Put the calls for change on hold, Lions fans.

Sean Clifford/Drew Allar

Sean Clifford completed 18 of his final 20 throws for 197 yards and 4 TDs Saturday against Michigan State, sealing his 31st victory as Penn State’s starting quarterback. Even if he passes Trace McSorley for the program record with a bowl victory, his career won’t be remembered as fondly as predecessor McSorley, who posted his numbers in 3 seasons as the Nittany Lions’ starter.

But the 24-year-old 6th-year senior did himself proud during his time in State College. No one should question his toughness, and his line-of-scrimmage orchestration of the offense probably saved the Lions more often than we’ll ever know. A multi-year team captain, he led by example, lowering his shoulder rather than sliding any time a first down was needed.

Meanwhile, 5-star Drew Allar played in 9 regular-season games and has spent a full spring-to-fall cycle watching and receiving mentoring from Clifford. If he truly has superior talent, and can match Clifford in heart and savvy, the sky should be the limit.

With a bowl game left to play, Allar has received as many passing reps (59) as Michigan 5-star freshman JJ McCarthy got last year while backing up Cade McNamara. Allar is 35-for-59 for 344 yards and 4 TDs with no picks. That’s solid prep work heading into a very promising 2023 for Penn State.

Transfers find their niche

For the 2nd year in a row, Penn State brought in a few key transfers and hit some home runs with them. Last year it was DE Arnold Ebiketie, OL Eric Wilson, DT Derrick Tangelo, CB Johnny Dixon and P Barney Amor. This year, the key transfer newcomers are WR Mitchell Tinsley, OL Hunter Nourzad and DE Chop Robinson.

Tinsley transferred in off a monster receiving season at Western Kentucky. While not nearly matching his 1,402 yards from 2021, the 1-year PSU addition clicked early with Clifford and proved sure-handed in tight spaces. He could pass injured Parker Washington for the team lead in receptions and yards if he plays in the bowl game.

Nourzad has become the starter at LG after Landon Tengwall went down, and the transfer from Cornell announced a couple weeks ago that he’ll come back for a final year of eligibility next year. That’s great news for PSU, because he’s been a better Ivy League addition than Harvard’s Wilson was a year ago.

Robinson jumped ship from Maryland after his freshman year and has fit in instantly as an edge-rushing demon for Diaz’s defense. The 2021 5-star recruit has 4 sacks and 8.5 TFL, ranking among the top 3 on the team in each. With potentially 2 more seasons remaining, he was a great pickup.

Franklin has found an effective formula with his narrow, highly focused approach to the portal.

Still short of elite

Glass half full: Penn State has been ranked in the top 10 at some point during each of the past 7 seasons, and has a great shot to finish there this year.

Glass half empty: Franklin’s teams have had at least 2 losses in all of those seasons, and thus have never made the Playoff. Going 1-8 vs. Ohio State and 3-6 against Michigan isn’t going to cut it for a coach who opened the door to thoughts of elite status.

At least and at last, Penn State is back on the verge of a breakthrough. Whether that happens before or after the Playoff expands remains to be seen. But the talent is there.

Michigan was in the same boat 2 years ago. Jim Harbaugh was weird and goofy then. Now he’s a bit eccentric and apparently one heck of a coach.

Franklin and Penn State might be on the brink of a similar metamorphosis. The Lions will have to get tougher in the trenches, which — for the first time in a while — seems possible. The 2023 season could wind up being even more fun than this one.