There’s something about the anticipation of a primetime night game, especially one against a division rival, in Beaver Stadium, during a White Out. I sat around all Saturday, following the earlier games from my couch, lesser games you might say, anxiously awaiting the 7:30 kickoff. Throughout the day, I also had a conversation with a co-worker of mine at the radio station I work at about how the Nittany Lions could win this game, and how they could let it slip away.
The core understanding of both of us, both Penn State alums I might add, was that Penn State needed to come out a punch Michigan right in the mouth, taking an early lead. I don’t think either of us could have predicted just how right we were. After Trace McSorley hit Juwan Johnson over the middle for a respectable six yard game to open the game, Saquon Barkley gashed the heart of the vaunted Michigan defense for 69 yards and a score just 43 seconds into the game. From that moment on, even when Michigan pulled within a single point at 14-13, the game never felt like it was in jeopardy. It was a commanding, dominating, sensational, insert adjective to describe Penn State’s win, win. This was a game I was tentative when picking the Nittany Lions. In fact, it was a game I don’t think I’d have taken Penn State had Michigan had a quarterback that could play. It was that simple. John O’Korn was the difference maker in this one, he just didn’t know it. With a big win over a ranked, conference opponent, I learned some things as the Nittany Lions improved to 7-0.
1. Trace McSorley Made Tremendous Reads
I bashed McSorley over the last few weeks saying that his reads haven’t been crisp overall. The stats and the eye test simply didn’t line up. He was making poor reads in the RPO, pulling when he really shouldn’t and sticking to Barkley when the box was stacked. But McSorley decimated the Michigan front seven all night long, and it’s goes well beyond the stat line. Sure, McSorley ran the ball 11 times for 76 yards and three scores, propelling the offense to victory, but his decision making transcended his final box score. Outside of the interception that one could chalk up to Mike Gesicki running an incorrect route, McSorley continually put himself in a perfect position to pull on those 11 carries, keeping his eyes downfield and waiting until the last possible moment to pull and run with the ball himself. Using Saquon Barkley, the ultimate weapon, as nearly a decoy, McSorley was left open countless times to carry around the pursuing defenders and into the second level. That’s the beauty of Saquon Barkley. Even when he isn’t getting the ball, he is still the most keyed player on the field. McSorley found the perfect balance of pull and give, and he utilized his legs to positively impact Barkley’s game. Barkley carried the ball 15 times for 108 yards and two scores. That RPO will continue to be deadly if, and only if, McSorley reads defenses the way he did this Saturday night against the best defense in football. Let’s see if he can repeat the same success in Columbus this weekend.
2. Joe Moorhead Won’t Be In State College Long
Joe Moorhead has helped build an uncontrollable wildfire stemming from a pilot light that wouldn’t start. His arrival is not coincidentally in tandem with the rise of the Nittany Lion offense. The format to success that Moorhead has installed in this RPO offense is extremely recognizable. Get good athletes, use your quarterback to his strengths, repeat. It’s a simple format that doesn’t always transfer. With that all being said, Joe Moorhead surely doesn’t want to be an offensive coordinator forever. Moorhead took a massive step forward in the coaching carousel by going from head coach at Fordham to offensive coordinator at Penn State, with great success. The next logical step would be to become a head coach at the highest level. There are going to be some interesting openings at the end of the 2017 season, especially if the year plays out the way that it has. Moorhead has a ton of leverage. He’ll hold out for the best opportunity available. He isn’t going to slide into a program like Rice. That’s a step backwards. He has the ability to pick his poison and, with some luck take a big time, Power 5 Conference job in 2018. While there will be a good amount of jobs available, I think the best option for Moorhead, if he were to leave after 2017, would be to head to Ole Miss. The Rebels are just 3-4, including 1-3 in the SEC. After Hugh Freeze left the program back in July amid scandal, Matt Luke took over as interim coach. He hasn’t lit the world on fire, and I’d have to assume his interim tag would remain just that and go no further. Moorhead would be a perfect infusion for the Rebels and give him his first shot as a head coach at the highest level. It’s not a guarantee that he’s out by any means, but don’t be surprised if this is the last season of the Moorhead offensive tenure.
3. The Penn State Defense Might Now Be The Best In The Nation
I ranted and raved over how good the Michigan defense was in my preview piece. They still are fantastic. The defense lost key starters on all three levels and still comes back in 2017 just as dominant. But, with the way that things progressed this weekend, it may be time to start crowning a new defense the kings of the country. That would your Penn State Nittany Lions. We know the power of the Alabama defense, but don’t short change the Nittany Lions any longer. Through seven games this season, the Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 90-0. Let me put that in other words. The Wild Dogs have allowed exactly ZERO points in the first quarter through seven games. Seven times 15 for those of us that need to use a calculator to figure out simple math is 105 minutes without giving up a first quarter point. That is unbelievable. The front seven caused fits to the Michigan offensive line all night long. The Wolverine offense carried the ball 42 times, an extremely lopsided number for a team trailing big late in the game, for 103 yards. That’s an average of 2.5 yards per carry. Both Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac found the endzone, but that’s more of a product of the bulk of carries than it is how good they were, because they were truly average. The Nittany Lions produced seven sacks and recorded eight tackles for loss. On those seven sacks, eight different players got involved, including cornerback Christian Campbell. The front four not only has skill, but it has depth. They have the ability to cycle through seven or eight guys for those four spots with the utmost confidence that the play will be made. Remember, all of this is being done with Torrence Brown, Penn State is now the ninth ranked defense in terms of yards allowed per game, giving up just 283. More importantly, they’ve allowed less than 500 rushing yards this season through the first seven games. The front seven is averaging over 3.4 sacks per game, or 24 for the entire season. That average is fourth best in the nation. The point I’m making is that this defense is top notch, and after the way they pressed John O’Korn last weekend, they may be the best in the country.
4. This Win Makes Next Week The Final Test
Yes, I know, you’re thinking, “Tyler, you’re the most pessimistic guy on the beat. You can’t possibly be saying the season is over if the team beats Ohio State.” But ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s time for me to shed that negative mantra, at least for this week, and proclaim the Nittany Lions Big Ten East champs if they defeat the Buckeyes this weekend. I know the team still has to play Michigan State, which is no slouch itself, along with Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland. I also know that any two losses, even with a win against Ohio State, would eliminate the Nittany Lions from conference contention, but hear me out. Penn State will all but clinch the Big Ten East with a win this weekend over Urban and the boys from Columbus. While the loss would only give Ohio State one conference defeat, it would mean they’ve dropped a second game on the schedule. If we know anything about the college football committee, and we know almost nothing about how those people think, it’s that two losses doom a team. Right, CFP Committee? RIGHT? We’d sure think so after how last year played out. But, of course, you never know. I would, however, assume that a loss to Penn State this weekend puts the Buckeyes too far out of reach of the CFP in 2017. If Penn State can beat Ohio State this weekend, especially on the road, and improve to 8-0, they are squarely in the driver’s seat for the division. Michigan now has two conference losses, Ohio State would have two total losses, and only Michigan State would stand in Penn State’s way. If the Nittany Lions defeat both Ohio State and Michigan State these next two weeks, they’ll improve to 9-0 and 6-0 in the conference. Michigan State and Ohio State would have two total losses and Michigan would be distant with two conference losses. A win this weekend makes the Big Ten East their’s to lose.
Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports