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November Surprise: Penn State Rejoins NCAA Football Elite Status

The early-season polls had it all wrong. The Penn State football program is now a national contender.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into the contest with Iowa there was the feeling that it could be the last major hurdle for the Lions in its quest to run the table for the remaining four games. The team needed to get off to a fast start, unlike many of the games earlier in the season. Penn State did just that.

The opening kick was taken 48 yards to midfield by Miles Sanders. The Lions didn’t waste time cashing in the field position. Five plays later, Trace McSorley found Saeed Blacknall in the back of the end zone for a 19 yard touchdown reception. Fans inside Beaver Stadium were still getting to their seats as Penn State took the early lead.

On the next possession Iowa drove to the Penn State 35 yard line before Jason Cabinda and the Lions’ defense stiffened. On a fourth and one play, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard tried to run for the yardage up the middle. Cabinda met him at the point of attack in mid-air, turning him back, and the rest of the Nittany Lion defense swarmed for the turnover on downs.

A 45-yard pass to Chris Godwin had the Lions rolling on its second possession, but the drive stalled at the Iowa 13 yard line and PSU had to settle for a field goal attempt. Josey Jewell blocked the kick, holding the lead to just 7 points.

The teams traded punts for the next three possessions and it was beginning to look as though Iowa had weathered the initial Penn State attack.

Penn State faced a critical 3rd and 5 on its own 43, and it appeared poised to punt for a second consecutive series when Saquon Barkley rushed off the left side of the line and took it to the house for a 57-yard touchdown. There was just over ten minutes remaining in the second quarter but it was beginning to feel as though Barkley and the Lions were going to run away with the game.

Following an Iowa punt on the next possession, Penn State took only 4 plays to travel 62 yards for the third touchdown of the first half. Mike Gesicki made a critical play on the drive, setting up a one-yard Trace McSorley touchdown run with a 43-yard catch to the Iowa 1 yard-line. Up by 21 points and facing very little resistance, it appeared that the game was heading for a blowout.

Iowa answered on the next possession, cutting the lead to 14 with a methodical, seven-play, 75-yard drive. Akrum Wadley caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from C.J. Beathard.

To that point in the game the Lions dominated play. While a 14 point lead in the first half is not a bad thing, it wasn’t indicative of the effort the the Lions gave to that point. On the ensuing drive Penn State reasserted itself with a ten play, 63-yard drive that ended with a Tyler Davis field goal as time ran out in the first half.

The first three possessions of the second half ended with punts. Penn State won the field position battle in the exchange, taking the fourth possession of the second half at midfield. Saquon Barkley converted a short 4th and 1 at the Iowa 44 to keep the drive going. The drive stalled out at the Iowa 20 yard line following an overturned call that was originally ruled a completion to Saeed Blacknall at the one yard-line. Tyler Davis finished the drive with a 37-yard field goal.

The next possession was critical for the Hawkeyes if the team was going to hold out hope for making a comeback, down 20 points in the fourth quarter. Troy Apke dashed those hopes when he intercepted a C.J. Beathard pass. If the interception didn’t end all hopes for the Hawkeyes, the next play from scrimmage did.

Saquon Barkley took a McSorley pass and ran 44 yards into the end zone to extend the Penn State lead to 34-7 in the fourth quarter. Each team added a touchdown with the starters on the bench for a final score of 41-14.

We Are A Very Well-Coordinated Team

Remember not long ago when defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for Tennessee and many people were concerned that there would be a drop-off on the defensive side of the ball this year? Shoop was given much of the credit for the success that Penn State enjoyed in coach James Franklin’s first two seasons in Happy Valley. The offense, and its coordinator that also departed prior to this season, were given much of the blame for the failures experienced in the past two seasons.

When former linebacker coach Brent Pry was elevated to the position of defensive coordinator this year there were some that were concerned he was not the right hire. I think we can put any concerns that Pry is not up to the task to rest at this point. It’s hard to find fault in the overall game-planning on the defensive side of the ball this year. Iowa was held to an anemic 30 yards rushing. Five separate Penn State players rushed for 30 or more yards versus the Hawkeyes.

Joe Moorhead joined the team this year, replacing the much maligned former offensive coordinator John Donovan. It was unsure whether Moorhead would be able to implement his offense this season to that point where it would make a noticeable difference. Penn State’s offense is hitting on all cylinders and there is no doubt that Moorhead’s offense will not just work at the Big Ten level, but be strong enough to defeat any opponent that comes Penn State’s way. A major factor in the success of the offense has been the steady play of the offensive line.

Matt Limegrover joined the team this year as the offensive line coach, replacing Herb Hand. The stellar play of the offensive line has been critical to the emergence of Penn State on the national stage. If the offensive line performed as it had in the past two seasons, there is no way Penn State would be in the position that it is in right now. The development of talent during the season, and week to week, has been impressive. Paris Palmer, who was forced into the starting lineup when Andrew Nelson went down with a season-ending injury at tackle, has played solid this season. There is always room for improvement but the progress that Palmer and fellow tackle Brandon Mahon have made this season is a credit to the coaching it is getting from Limegrover.

Odds and Ends

NCAA Playoff Talk-Is there enough chaos in the world of college football to allow Penn State to move into a playoff position? Who knows, really, but it is fun to have the Lions in the conversation. When looking at the most likely path to the final four it seems logical that Penn State would need to win out and hope that Michigan loses two games. That seems like the longest of long-shots at this point. Another long-shot possibility, probably such a minuscule percentage that it would take John Urschel a hefty-sized chalk board and a full package of chalk to express, exists.

With No. 4 Texas A&M taking an unexpected loss to un-ranked Mississippi State, we are reminded that crazy things have and will happen in college football. Is it possible for both Michigan and Penn State to find their way into the college football playoff? Popular opinion would say that it isn’t, but what say you, Stephen Hawking?

Heisman Hopeful- Does Saquon Barkley have a shot at becoming a finalist for the Heisman Trophy? The general consensus is that quarterback Lamar Jackson of Louisville has the award all but wrapped up at this point, but being a finalist would be quite an honor for the sophomore running back Barkley. It has been a long time since the Lions have had a player that is in consideration for such an honor.

The last Penn State player to receive votes for the Heisman Trophy was Micheal Robinson, who finished 5th in the voting in 2005. Larry Johnson finished third in the voting in 2002. Lavar Arrington finished 9th in 1999. Curtis Enis got the fifth-most votes and a $407 business suit in 1997. Kijana Carter and Kerry Collins finished 2nd and 4th respectively in 1994. Blair Thomas finished 10th in 1989. In 1986, D.J. Dozier finished 8th in the voting, the same year Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh finished 3rd.

That’s the complete list of Penn State players that have received Heisman votes in the past thirty years. Whether or not Barkley ends up in New York, a finalist, remains to be seen. He is now being mentioned in such conversations. There are many ways to measure a player and Penn State has had many great players in the past thirty years. Even so, the Heisman is reserved for truly special players.

The point in starting this conversation isn’t to put undo focus on the popularity contest that is the Heisman Trophy, typically reserved for players that weigh less than 225 pounds. It is to point out that in Barkley we are watching one of the special players that has made his way to Happy Valley. Barkley is one for the ages. It’s easy to forget that he turned 19 in February. A great deal of the team’s success can be attributed to him. Decades from now PSU fans will readily recall the exploits of Saquon Barkley. Whether or not he receives Heisman votes, or is a finalist, should not overshadow the fact that we are witnessing one of the great all-time players to wear the blue and white.

Enjoy The Ride- Entering the season there were few people, even among the most optimistic of Penn State fans, that thought the team would be 7-2 at this point. Had we been told that this would be the record through nine games, most would have imagined the losses would have come to Ohio State and Michigan. There was much talk about the desire for the Lions to return to a place where it could compete with the monsters in its own division of the Big Ten, much less the rest of the top teams in college football.

People wondered when the Lions would be able not just play even with, but defeat the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State. That time has come. With a win versus OSU already in the books, and the prospects of being a double-digit favorite to defeat MSU in the final game of the season, Penn State is no longer on the bottom looking up at its division rivals.

Last season Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan State were all in the top 9 of the initial college football playoff rankings. It wasn’t until November 24 that two-loss Michigan found its way into the top ten of the rankings, only to lose to OSU that week, getting bumped from the top ten for the remainder of the year. Remember the feeling as a Penn State fan of looking up at those teams, wishing the day would come that the Lions could enjoy such accolades. The day is upon us. There’s a chance that the team could defeat each of the three teams that were in the initial top-ten of the rankings last season all in one year, this year.

It’s natural to look ahead of Penn State in the rankings to imagine scenarios that may have the team move up and into better positions. Let’s not forget to enjoy the position that the team already owns. Take a look behind the Lions in the standings and enjoy the angst on the faces of the teams looking up at their success with honor. I’m looking at you Sparty. I’m looking at you coach Ferentz. LSU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Florida State, maybe some day you will get back to where the Lions are currently.

Is Indiana A Super-Secret, Hidden-Trap Game?- With the success of the Lions in recent weeks we should caution ourselves to remember that there are three football games remaining on the regular-season schedule. No team can pencil in wins prior to the game, that’s why we love sports. There will be a lot of talk about the game next week in Indiana versus the Hoosiers. Let’s put to rest that it will be a trap game. While talking with BSD’s Garrett Carr prior to the game on Saturday he made quick work to quell this idea. “It’s not a trap if you know that it’s there,” the young Carr, a Penn State senior, exclaimed with indifference to the topic. Does anyone really think that the Lions would look past any team remaining on its schedule? What would they be looking at if they were? We can all rest assured that the team will not take the Hoosiers lightly. Let’s hope that translates to a comfortable road win.