— Story by PSU Insider Brian Tripp @
Penn State’s unlikely conquest of the Big Ten East Division concluded Saturday with the Nittany Lions outscoring Michigan State 35-0 in the second half to earn a 45-12 victory and secure a berth in this weekend’s Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Ohio State’s remarkable double-overtime win over Michigan overshadowed much of the first half between Penn State and Michigan State. Then, as it has all season, Penn State dominated the game’s final 30 minutes to capture its first-ever berth in the conference title game. Much of this week will be spent speculating if either of the potential two-loss conference champions, Penn State or Wisconsin, can leapfrog Clemson, Washington or Ohio State to reach the College Football Playoff. Obviously, a loss by either Clemson or Washington in its respective championship contests simplifies the playoff picture and based on the previous 13 weeks, I fully expect all scenarios to sort themselves out this weekend.
Barkley’s Status For Indianapolis
Standout running back Saquon Barkley suffered an apparent right leg injury in the second half of Saturday’s comeback victory. Barkley ran for just 14 yards and a touchdown prior to the injury. He did not return. However, head coach James Franklin said he expects Barkley to be available for the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin. I anticipate Barkley starting on Saturday, but fans should worry about his effectiveness after leaving each of the last two games with an injury. If Barkley can’t play, Andre Robinson would likely get the start. Penn State has tremendous backfield depth with Robinson, Mark Allen and Miles Sanders, but Barkley’s talent can’t be duplicated.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley’s development has catapulted Penn State on its eight-game winning streak. McSorley had the best outing of his career on Saturday, tossing for a career-high 376 yards and four touchdowns. McSorley has accentuated his strengths while avoiding mistakes. His athleticism has greatly benefited the Penn State offense and helps allow McSorley to make big plays, the signature of the Nittany Lions’ attack. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is receiving justified credit for the scheme and identity of the Penn State offense. He also deserves significant praise for the growth of McSorley. McSorley doesn’t have terrific size, arm strength or speed, but he continues to win. The team feeds off his energy, leadership and character.
Don’t Forget About the Defense
After unprecedented early season injuries at linebacker, Penn State’s defense has equally been as crucial to the team’s success as its vastly improved offense. First-year defensive coordinator Brent Pry has established effective rotations taking advantage of improved depth and should be considered one of the nation’s top assistants this season. The return of linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell provided leadership and guidance to create a cohesive unit. In fact, Penn State has not allowed a touchdown in consecutive games for the first time since 2009. Against Michigan State, the defense posted ten tackles for loss, amassing at least nine for the ninth time in 2016. Linebacker Brandon Bell was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week after tallying 18 tackles against the Spartans. Penn State ends the regular season ranked 30th nationally allowing 22.8 points per game, despite allowing more than 40 points in both losses this season.
This Week on PhillyFootballTalk.com
With Penn State’s berth in the Big Ten Championship Game, I’ll continue with our weekly recruiting update, opponent preview and predictions. Also, I’ll name award winners based on the 2016 regular season and debate the likelihood of Penn State’s appearance in the College Football Playoff with a win on Saturday.