While trying my best to be objective heading into the season, my line of thinking was that Penn State would take a minor step back in 2018 before being in position to be a perennial playoff contender moving forward. There were times that I told myself the inexperienced but talented defense would come out firing, that the offense wouldn’t miss DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki in the passing game, and that a favorable home schedule with a senior quarterback could mean an unexpected national championship run.
But deep down I knew that was unlikely. There aren’t many programs outside of Alabama and Ohio State who can lose as much overall talent as Penn State did in 2017 and not skip a beat. I wanted to believe the Nittany Lions might be there — and truth be told, they are very close — but knew there would be some weeks where Penn State took its lumps as inexperience reared its ugly head.
My best guess was that Penn State was headed for a solid yet unspectacular 9-3 season and finish around 13th in the rankings- still good, but just enough down the list to be separated from the elite teams who are vying for a national championship. So with all things considered, things basically went the way I thought. Considering the fact that McSorley wasn’t at full strength throughout the season while relying on two freshmen as his primary playmakers, perhaps 9-3 is a bigger accomplishment than we realize.
However, there still is the way they got to 9-3 that left more to desire. Losing to Ohio State is certainly forgivable, but allowing a late lead to slip through their hands for the second year in a row was a bitter pill to swallow. All that was needed for someone - ANYONE - to step up and make a big play in the final eight minutes to seal the deal. But that’s what happens when you have a youthful team that was essentially replacing its entire defense outside of Shareef Miller, along with three record-setting all-time greats at the skill positions on offense.
There was less of an excuse the following game, as Penn State somehow dropped a home game against Michigan State following a bye week. The Spartans featured a stingy defense, but the worst offense in the Big Ten outside of Rutgers. Once again, the youthful nature of the team reared its ugly head as they once again failed to make a play to clinch a victory.
The loss to Michigan was not surprising, but getting pounded by a team that hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2003 was far from ideal.
So while 9-3 seems just about right for this team, there will always be that lingering thought of “what could have been.”
However, there were many positives that came through - the drastic improvement of the defense, the emergence of players like Yetur Gross-Matos and KJ Hamler, the play of true freshmen Micah Parsons and Pat Freiermuth that suggest future All-American seasons, and much more that we’ll get into regularly as we look ahead to what should be a promising 2019 campaign.
So what say you, BSD reader? Did Penn State meet/fail to meet/exceed your expectations during the 2018 season? Where is the team now compared th where you thought they would be back in August?