3 Factors to Make or Break Penn State 2019 – Factor 3
What happened to Penn State last year?
Depending on whom you speak with, Penn State either had a fairly productive 2018 season, or an absolutely disastrous one — as with most disagreements, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Nittany Lions went 8-4 in the 2018 regular season, and capped off the campaign with a disappointing loss to the Kentucky Wildcats (remember, this is college football, not basketball) in the PlayStation Citrus Bowl.
8-4 for most teams is phenomenal, but not for a team whose fan-base expected a legitimate chance at the College Football Playoff. Despite how unrealistic those aspirations were heading into the 2018 season. James Franklin’s team struggled to replace the production of all-world running back Saquon Barkley following his departure to the NFL. First-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne showed unequivocal proof that it was indeed his first year calling plays. Then once again, the this-is-the-year-they-may-turn-it-around offensive line, failed to make it the year they turned it around. In fact, one could argue this unit regressed.
But things weren’t all doom-and-gloom for the 2018 Happy Valley squad. The two shining jewels of the coaching staff, DC Brent Pry and Assistant HC/DL Coach Sean “Chaos” Spencer, showed again why they deserve yearly raises. The Lions’ 2018 defense was first in the nation in sacks per game, and saw breakout seasons from DE Yetur Gross-Matos and former 5-star recruit LB Micah Parsons.
All in all, Penn State fans hope 2018 was a necessary step back, in order to leap two steps forward. The following are the three things I believe must happen in order for PSU to take said leap. As the first of a three part series, let’s examine the factor ranked third:
#3: Special Teams Must Become a Strength through Consistency for Penn State
The Nittany Lions struggled harshly with special teams consistency in 2018. So much so, that a case could be made that it cost them their season (lost to OSU by 1 in a game where Jake Pinegar missed a 46-yard FG). And thus, brought on a new ST coordinator from Memphis: Joe Lorig. Lorig’s corny-coach-hashtag is “#CTG,” for “change the game”. Let’s see what things about the game need to change for PSU to find ST success:
3a. Place Kicking:
The aforementioned true-frosh kicker, Jake Pinegar, had a so-and-so start to his college football career. The Iowa-native made 53/55 extra-points, but only 16/24 field goal attempts. It’s important to note, that Pinegar missed four of his first eight attempts. However, he finished by notching 12 of his final 16. State needs to continue seeing a conversion percentage closer to the latter, if he really wants the coaching staff’s trust..
In the kickoff department, true-freshman Rafa Checa secured 37 touchbacks in 79 attempts, but also blasted 6 footballs out-of-bounds. It is imperative for the Maryland product to find kickoff consistency in 2019, as he will face stiff competition. That competition will come from one of college football’s Touchback Gods, junior transfer, Jordan Stout. Stout, the former Virginia Tech Hokie, flared sixty out of seventy-one kickoffs for touchbacks in 2018. Only a slender 2 of his kickoffs landed out-of-bounds. Unfortunately, I think even Rafa knows: Stout’s transfer signifies he will likely start 2019 as a back-up. Either way, this competition is sure to vastly improve PSU’s touchback percentage.
Lastly, Penn State’s punting struggled with consistency in 2018, compared to the two years prior. Now listen, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bigger Blake Gillikin fan than me, but the Georgia-native just wasn’t his usual sharp self in some games last season. He averaged 42 yards or less per punt in 5 games, including an abysmal 39 yards/punt against OSU. But to keep this short: I’d bet an obscene amount of money that my future physician-colleague, and PSU’s current ST captain, will turn it around in his final year of college ball before choosing between the NFL and medical school. Just too smart (4.0 GPA) and focused not to.