Fiesta Bowl: Penn State-35, Washington-28
The Nittany Lions were in command throughout the game, but Washington did enough to keep things interesting- especially considering Penn State’s late collapses that led to stunning recent defeats against USC and Ohio State. The offense had a record-setting day against one of the very best defenses in all of college football, helping prove two things- Ricky Rahne was the right pick to take over as offensive coordinator, and the young and maligned offensive line has a bright future. Penn State proved their mettle in a NY6 bowl game, and it was the perfect way to send off players like Saquon Barkley, Marcus Allen, Jason Cabinda and many more who played for the final time in the blue and white. Oh yeah, and we had one last jaw-dropping highlight from Barkley:
Honorable Mention: Iowa, Michigan
Saquon Barkley’s 69-yard touchdown scamper on the first play from scrimmage to help rout Michigan.
This could have gone a few different directions, but think back to that feeling when Barkley sprung free against the nation’s then top-ranked run defense. All seemed right in the world- Penn State was ranked #2, the run game appeared to have been fixed, and the team had avenged the embarrassing 49-10 loss from a year ago with its own blowout of the Wolverines. Things came crashing down the following two weeks, but for a moment it seemed like Penn State was destined to head to the playoffs with the Heisman winner in tow.
Honorable Mention: Juwan Johnson’s game-winning touchdown reception at Iowa, Barkley leaping an Iowa defender for a first down, Barkley’s 92-yard run in the Fiesta Bowl, Marcus Allen’s game-sealing safety against Akron (Pa.), DeSean Hamilton become Penn State all-time receptions leader
Sure, some teams figured out how to slow down Barkley, but even as a decoy he was the most valuable player in all of college football. Barkley was the nation’s only player to rush for more than 1,000 yards while also accumulating 500 yards receiving. He was also the Big Ten’s Special Teams Player of the Year for his outstanding work as a kick returner. Barkley did it all, and you just simply held your breath each time he touched the ball. There was always a chance that somehow, someway Barkley was going to reach the end zone whenever he had the ball in his hands.
Honorable Mention: Trace McSorley, DaeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, Juwan Johnson, Ryan Bates
Allen followed-up on a stellar junior campaign by kicking it up a notch in 2017. He was simply everywhere, continually making plays all over the field and making life incredibly difficult for opposing offenses. Whenever he stepped off the field, his absence was obvious as his productivity was impossible to match. He was also one of the primary emotional leaders of the team, making sure everyone around him shared his enthusiasm and came to play each and every down. Allen also had the defensive play of the year with an incredible game-sealing safety in week two against Akron (Pa.).
Honorable Mention: Jason Cabinda, Shareef Miller, Grant Haley
Special Teams Player of the Year
It’s no coincidence that Penn State took a major step forward once they had a punter of Gillikin’s stature. The true sophomore regularly flipped the field with his booming leg, while also finding more touch to pin teams deep in their own territory on shorter attempts. Gillikin may not get the attention he deserves, but there’s no denying that he has been a major-difference maker after a few seasons of shoddy punting and regularly shanked kicks that routinely put the defense in a bad spot.
Honorable Mention: Saquon Barkley, DeAndre Thompkins, Nick Scott
Most Clutch Performance
Trace McSorley and company’s game-winning drive at Iowa
It looked like Penn State’s troubled history against Iowa was about to resume, as Penn State gave up a late lead in Kinnick. But then McSorley and the ice water traveling through his veins pulled off a drive for the ages. McSorley was near-perfect, methodically driving Penn State down the field in a drive that included a key fourth-and-two conversion to Saeed Blacknell, and a play where Barkley juked one of the nation’s top linebackers right out of his shoes. It all came down to one last play on a fourth down and seconds remaining, and of course McSorley responded with a perfectly thrown touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson to give the Nittany Lions the heart-pounding victory just as time expired.
Honorable Mention: The offense (finally) puts together a sustained drive to eat up clock with a lead in the Fiesta Bowl.
Saquon Barkley’s (best) hurdle against Iowa
Barkley has been hurdling hapless defenders from the start of his Penn State career, but the one against Iowa this fall takes the cake. While in the process of breaking the school record for all-purpose yards in a game and launching himself to the top of the Heisman list, Barkley jumped completely over a Hawkeyes defender, got hit in mid-air, and somehow landed on his feet and kept running for additional yardage to convert a key third down. Throughout his career, Barkley made plays that had to be seen to be believed on a weekly basis. This is one I still can’t fathom just how he did it. All I know is there will be a very fortunate NFL fanbase next fall who will get to enjoy the Barkley Show each Sunday, beginning this fall.
Honorable Mention: Juwan Johnson’s walk-off touchdown at Iowa, Barkley’s 92-yard touchdown run in the Fiesta Bowl, Marcus Allen’s safety against Akron (Pa.), Barkley’s kickoff return touchdowns against Indiana and Ohio State, Barkley’s ridiculous one-handed catch against Iowa, Barkley’s 85-yard touchdown reception against Georgia State where he outran three defenders with an angle, etc., etc.
Freshman of the Year
If you go by the eye test, Yetur Gross-Matos looks like a guy who’s ready to play in the NFL. While he still has plenty of work ahead to get to that point, Gross-Matos certainly proved he has the potential to be a standout on the Nittany Lions defensive line for the foreseeable future. He was a valuable reserve as a true freshman, finishing the season with 17 tackles, two TFLs, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. It won’t be much longer until he is regularly harassing Big Ten quarterbacks on a very regular basis.
Honorable Mention: Will Fries, Tariq Castro-Fields, Lamont Wade
Most Improved Player
We heard all about Johnson throughout spring ball, and he certainly delivered in 2017. As a redshirt freshman in 2016, Johnson had just two catches. As a sophomore, he improved by collecting 54 receptions for 701 yards. He especially seemed to come on later in the season, suggesting he has fully turned a corner to become an elite receiver. With another offseason of development and McSorley slinging him the ball again in 2018, Johnson could very well challenge for All-American status this fall.
Honorable Mention: Shareef Miller
Most Underrated Player
No one knew much about Smith until early in the 2016 Temple game when he was forced into action after a slew of injuries at linebacker. As soon as he hit the field, he found ways to make plays and tackle everything in sight. Smith proved that you can still excel at a high level without the desired size and speed, as long as you put in the work and have the right football instincts. He ultimately started the final four games of the season, including the Fiesta Bowl, in place of the suspended Manny Bowen and proved that perhaps he should have been the starter at outside linebacker all along. With depth issues at linebacker on the horizon, let’s hope there’s another Smith on the roster who surprises us all in 2018.
Honorable Mention: Parker Cothren, Robert Windsor, Ryan Buchholz, Ryan Bates, DeAndre Thompkins
Coach of the Year
If you want to see an all-around, well-coached unit, take a close look at Penn State’s wide receivers group. Sure, they make big plays and rack up yardage, but they do all the little things right. You almost never see a receiver lose focus and drop a pass, commit a penalty or run an incorrect route. They also do one thing well across the board- block. This is an underrated piece to the offense, but not only do the receivers all excel as blockers, they stuck with their man until the last echo of the whistle, which makes all the difference between a quality 10-15 yard gain, and one where the ballcarrier makes it all the way to the end zone. Gattis continually gets the very most of his players, while developing them in a way where you can see clear progress as each receiver grows as a player.