Over the next couple of weeks, GopherDigest will take an early look at the Minnesota Gophers football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we preview the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Penn State Nittany Lions
Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
Oct. 1, 2016, time TBA
Penn State head coach: James Franklin (3rd season)
Coordinators: Joe Moorhead (Offensive coordinator; 1st season) and Brent Pry (defensive coordinator; 3rd season)
Penn State 2015 record – 7-6 (4-4 B1G): The Nittany Lions and the Gophers last played in 2013 when the Gophers defeated Penn State at home 24-10. Nothing about Penn State's season was easy even though they won seven games as they beat the teams they were supposed to, and lost to the others, ending the season on a four-game losing streak.
2015 offensive stats: 105th nationally in total offense (348.6 YPG), 101st in scoring offense (23.2 PPG), 74th in passing offense (214.5 YPG), 105th in rushing offense (134.2 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 14th nationally in total defense (324.5 YPG), 26th in scoring defense (21.8 PPG), 8th in passing defense (173.5 YPG), 43rd in rushing defense (151.0 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Trace McSorley (185 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT on 20-of- 40 passing): With the Christian Hackenberg era now over, things shift to redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorely who saw limited action last season. McSorely isn't your prototypical passer at 6'0" 200 lbs, so it'll be interesting to see what the Penn State offense looks like without Hackenberg.
Returning leading rusher – RB Saquon Barkley (1076 yards, 7 TD on 182 carries): The Nittany Lions return their stud freshman running back and maybe the best running back in all the Big Ten in Saquon Barkley. Expecting Barkley to have a huge year in 2016 and to play a key role with Penn State meets the Gophers in early October.
Returning leading receiver – WR Chris Godwin (1101 yards, 5 TD on 69 catches): Penn State returns their top three receivers from last year, starting with Chris Godwin who averaged 16 yards a catch on 69 receptions, so the big play is absolutely there for the Nittany Lions.
Returning leading tackler – LB Jason Cabinda (100 tackles): The Nittany Lions return their leading tackler from last season in junior linebacker Jason Cabinda, who was also a threat in the passing game with six passed defended and five break ups.
Returning leader in interceptions – Two players tied with two (two picks): Penn State defensively was on the top teams in the country, and both John Reid and Grant Haley return as their leaders in interceptions. An 8th rated pass defense from 2015.
FOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY MARK BRENNAN OF FIGHT ON STATE
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
MB: 1. Can new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead invigorate a unit that struggled in James Franklin’s first two seasons as head coach? A third straight poor offensive showing may lead people to start looking for a common denominator.
2. The battle to replace QB Christian Hackenberg. Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley has the clear edge over redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens heading into preseason camp. Both are more mobile QBs than Hackenberg was, and seem to fit in well with a new offense that is fast -paced and features the read option.
3. How big of a loss was defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who left for the same job at Tennessee? He’s been replaced by former co-DC Brent Pry, and so far it appears to be a smooth transition.
What are Penn State’s greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
MB: • Running backs and receivers. Led by RB Saquon Barkley and WR Chris Godwin, these two loaded positions should help take pressure off the new QB and a still developing offensive line.
• If healthy, the projected starting LB corps of Jason Cabinda, Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman-White will be among the best in the Big Ten.
• Depth in the secondary. There may not be a superstar in the defensive backfield. But the Lions have enough DBs with different skill sets that they’ll be able to mix and match for nearly anything opponents throw at them. Expect a lot of nickel and dime.
What are the Nittany Lions' greatest weaknesses?
MB: • The kicking game. PSU could well be relying on true freshmen to handle the placement and punting duties. This area was really hurt during the sanctions era, as PSU did not spend a scholarship on a kicker in its 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes. That changed when it signed a kicker (Alex Barbir) and punter (Blake Gillikin) in February.
• The offensive line (again). Things are slowly but surely starting to improve. But the Lions are probably still a year away from having the sort of long, athletic front five Franklin covets.
• Depth at linebacker. PSU is really counting on five men to fill the starting and primary backup roles at three positions.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for Penn State?
MB: This should be the final year PSU feels the brunt of the since-lifted NCAA sanctions. Of the 81 players on scholarship as of this writing, 54 (or 67 percent) have sophomore or freshman eligibility. There are 35 redshirt or true freshman on scholarship, guys who have never logged a college snap. So expect one more season where the Lions are at or just above the .500 level before a series of strong recruiting classes leads to better things moving forward.
You can follow Mark Brennan on Twitter @MarkXBrennan.
Thank you for reading this GopherDigest article. To discuss it, please visit GopherDigest's Forums.
COMPLETED EARLY OPPONENT PREVIEWS:
Oct. 8 vs. Iowa
Oct. 15 at Maryland
Oct. 22 vs. Rutgers (Homecoming)
Oct. 29 at Illinois
Nov. 5 vs. Purdue
Nov. 12 at Nebraska
Nov. 19 vs. Northwestern
Nov. 26 at Wisconsin