With an offense that was clicking on all cylinders by the end of the season, and a defense that was stifling in the second half, there is no shortage of plays to choose from when discussing a top ten play list for Penn State football 2016. A total of thirty one plays were named as tops amongst a poll of BSD staff; here is a breakdown of those who were close, but didn’t make the final cut.
Tommy Stevens perfectly executes a jet sweep - and trucks a few guys on the way into the endzone
Game: vs Iowa, November 5
The rout of the Hawkeyes, in front of a last-minute whiteout crowd, was well underway when Tommy Stevens took the field - and promptly split out wide. Starting quarterback Trace McSorley got the snap and handed it off to an in-motion Stevens, who arced out towards the sideline. Stevens ran through not one but four Iowa defenders on his way into the endzone, including All-Big Ten and All American Desmond King, to put a cap on the most complete game of the Penn State season.
Play outcome: Touchdown. Penn State 41, Iowa 7
The sacks of JT Barrett seals the upset
Game: vs Ohio State, October 22
After Marcus Allen and Grant Haley combined to put the Nittany Lions ahead in the ballgame, the Penn State defense took the field with just over four minutes to go, and one mission: to keep Barrett and the Ohio State offense from getting into field goal territory. They were up to the task, bending some early in the drive but never breaking, and back-to-back sacks of Barrett (first by Jason Cabinda, then by Evan Schwan and Kevin Givens) put a coda on a game for the ages that solidified that PSU was a contender in 2016.
Play outcome: Turnover on downs. Penn State 24, Ohio State 21
Saquon Barkley does Saquon Barkley things (part one)
Game: at Purdue, October 29
The game against Purdue, not a good team in 2016, followed the usual script: slow start, lulling the opponent to think they had a chance—then an offensive explosion in the second half coupled with a crack down on defense, and before the opponent knew it, the hole was deep and the beatdown was fierce. After hearing all week about how a lull on the road against the Boilermakers was likely, the Nittany Lions instead put the pedal to the metal—something epitomized by this play. Barkley immediately takes the handoff and heads up the middle, but with nothing there bumps it out to the sideline where key blocks from Chris Godwin and Ryan Bates allow him to cut back to the inside - and see nothing but green.
Play outcome: Touchdown. Penn State 48, Purdue 24
Saquon Barkley does Saquon Barkley things (part two)
Game: vs Iowa
Third downs weren’t a particularly kind statistic to the Nittany Lions in 2016--but this play was the hopeful exception. Before the Iowa game turned ugly for the Hawks, the visiting team was still within a score, and had held the Nittany Lions to just five yards on first and second down. Then Saquon Barkley happened.
The Iowa defense fell for McSorley’s fake keeper, and allowed Barkley to bounce to the outside; he got by an attempted arm tackle by DB Brandon Snyder and, despite a missed block by Irvin Charles of King, found his way into the endzone.
Play outcome: Touchdown. Penn State 14, Iowa 0
Blake Gillikin saves a touchdown
Game: vs Ohio State
It’s rare that you’ll see a play that ends in a score for an opponent on a list of best plays. But had true freshman Blake Gillikin not had the wherewithall to chase down the ball in the endzone, Ohio State would have been up by 18 or 19 instead of fourteen - and the block six wouldn’t have been the game-winner. Punting is winning - even if the punt doesn’t get off.
Play outcome: Safety. Ohio State 21, Penn State 7
Saeed Blacknall makes it two for two
Game: Big Ten Championship, December 3
If you thought Penn State was out when down by 21 in the second quarter of the Big Ten Championship game, you obviously hadn’t watched much Nittany Lion ball in 2016. After finishing the first half on a high note with a McSorley bomb to Saeed Blacknall, the PSU offense took the field in the third after a failed Badger field goal attempt - and in the first play from scrimmage, started literally where they left off, with a 70-yard-strike to Blacknall—who ran, untouched, the last thirty yards into the endzone.
Play outcome: Touchdown. Wisconsin 28, Penn State 21
Don’t do that to Joey Julius
Game: vs Minnesota, October 1
Joey Julius had made a name for himself in the then-short season by laying big hits on players that deigned to return his kicks - and opposing players took notice. Minnesota’s Jaylen Waters seemed to have one job on kickoff duty - neutralize Julius. The two players got into a bit of a scrum earlier in the game, when Waters appeared to push into Julius repeatedly while the kicker was already down on the ground, but it wasn’t until the third quarter where Waters’ cheap shot got him in a lot of trouble. On a kick that wasn’t even returned as it went through the endzone, Julius had taken his mouth guard out and the play was dead, but Waters either didn’t know or didn’t care - and tackled Julius with force. He was ejected from the game, and couldn’t provide key special teams or defensive depth for the Gophers in a game that went into extra time.
Maryland’s Isaiah Davis tried the same thing the next week - with a similar outcome. One does not simply tackle PSU’s big kicker.
Play outcome: Player ejection. Penn State 20, Minnesota 20
You can't stop Trace McSorley to our
1st 2nd 3rd 4th best wide receiver
Game: vs Maryland, October 8
Speaking of Maryland, the Terrapins were theoretically still within striking distance near the end of the third quarter, only down two scores and having held the Nittany Lions’ potent offense scoreless in that quarter. But nothing is ever safe when you were facing the PSU offense in 2016, and two plays into the Lions’ third possession of the half saw McSorley throw what one BSD staffer called his most perfect pass of the year - this to a wide receiver who had only had 14 receptions on the season prior to that day, DeAndre Thompkins. There was no coming back from that, and the Terrapins would lose by 24.
Play outcome: Touchdown. Penn State 31, Maryland 14
Jason Cabinda channels his inner LaVar
Game: vs Iowa
The LaVar Leap is a legendary play in Penn State football history, replicated by Paul Posluzny to great effect. Early in the nighttime game against the Hawkeyes, Cabinda showed that this would not be a game that would be close, and he would not be denied; in their first possession of the game, after allowing a 19-yard pass TD on defense, the Iowa offense faced fourth-and-one at the Penn State 35. Not only did quarterback CJ Beathard not make that one yard, but in his third game back from injury, Cabinda timed his charge forward so well that Beathard got pushed back, allowing Brandon Bell to get the cleanup tackle. As Matt Millen said, this play was awesome - and it set the tone for that entire game.
Play outcome: Turnover on downs. Penn State 7, Iowa 0
Others receiving votes:
Cam Brown and Cabinda's stop of Minnesota in overtime, Mike Gesicki's touchdown to start PSU's scoring in the Big Ten title game, Godwin's catch versus Minnesota, Godwin's jumpball against Ohio State, McSorley's tackle-evading scramble against Maryland, the flea flicker that actually worked against Indiana, Bell's interception in the Rose Bowl, Blacknall's first touchdown in Indianapolis, Brandon Smith's interception against Purdue, Torrance Brown's scoop and score at Indiana, Garrett Sickels' entire second half against the Buckeyes, and Bell's strip sack against Wisconsin.