— Story by PSU Insider Brian Tripp @psuTripp
Team MVP: Trace McSorley, Quarterback
Other Candidates – Saquon Barkley, Brandon Bell, Marcus Allen
Replacing three-year starter Christian Hackenberg, redshirt sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley entered the season as one of Penn State’s biggest unknowns. The undersized quarterback had plenty of ups-and-downs early, adapting to the speed of the college game and adjusting to the demands of new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. Penn State’s commitment to McSorley was rewarded during the team’s nine-game winning streak, as the dual-threat quarterback accounted for 25 touchdowns (20 passing, 5 rushing) and just 2 interceptions during the Nittany Lions’ surge. More impressively, McSorley tossed for at least 332 passing yards in three of his final four games and four touchdowns in the division clinching game against Michigan State and four more in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin. As opposing defenses focused on containing Saquon Barkley, more responsibility fell on McSorley, who showed continued growth handling the football, decision making, running and passing. By season’s end, McSorley arguably became the top quarterback in the Big Ten. Once chastised by fans for his downfield interception in the final moments of a devastating three point loss against Pittsburgh, McSorley developed into the best downfield passer in the conference, an ideal trait for Moorhead’s offense.
Most Outstanding Player (Offense): Saquon Barkley, Running Back
Other Candidates: McSorley, Mike Gesicki, Chris Godwin
Very little explanation is needed here. Barkley is among the nation’s best running backs and will likely be a first round NFL pick following his junior season. The sophomore can do it all – run, catch and block – and will make a terrific pro. Barkley ended the season with 1,302 rushing yards, 347 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns. Barkley battled injuries to consistently produce solid numbers and had several huge performances during Penn State’s nine-game winning streak, accounting for more than 200 yards three times. Barkley enters next season as a Heisman Trophy favorite and will likely become the second Nittany Lion to win the award if McSorley’s development continues and opposing defenses still cover Barkley with linemen or linebackers on the wheel route.
Most Outstanding Player (Defense): Marcus Allen, Safety
Other Candidates: Grant Haley, Brandon Bell, Jason Cabinda
Allen, along with cornerback Grant Haley, was responsible for Penn State’s two biggest plays in 2016. He also led the team in tackles and fumble recoveries. The junior was one of two players to start every game this season and is unquestionably one of the leaders of the defense. Allen’s versatility and IQ make him the most important piece to Brent Pry’s defense. He’s also a terrific Twitter follow and personality, quickly becoming one of my favorite Penn State players of the last decade.
Most Improved Player: Mike Gesicki, Tight End
Other Candidates: Brandon Mahon, Koa Farmer, DeAndre Thompkins, Paris Palmer
Gesicki ended the season as Penn State’s second-leading receiving, hauling in 47 passes for 68 yards and four touchdowns. Last season, Gesicki was marred by inconsistency and struggled making easy catches. In 2016, Gesicki developed into a prolific pass-catching tight end. He caught almost everything and was particularly impressive in the season’s final two games with leaping touchdowns against Michigan State and Wisconsin. Gesicki will never be a strong blocking tight end, but probably deserved all-conference first team recognition over Michigan’s Jake Butt. There’s a chance Gesicki enters the NFL draft this spring, but should he return, Penn State’s offense will return the most complete cast of weapons in college football.
Unsung Hero Award: Tyler Davis, Kicker
Other Candidates: Blake Gillikin, Brandon Smith, Joey Julius, Matt Limegrover
First-team all-conference kicker Tyler Davis missed just two field goals in 2016 and both were blocked by defenders who got a strong push at the line of scrimmage. With only the Rose Bowl remaining, Davis has converted on 30-of-32 field goal attempts in his Nittany Lion career and has never missed an extra point. Davis does not have incredible leg strength, but is nearly automatic, which college kickers rarely are. Davis converted clutch field goals against Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin to help secure wins. A former Bradley soccer player, Davis helped atone for Penn State’s red zone struggles with pinpoint accuracy and consistency. He’ll end his career as one of the best kickers ever to suit up for the Nittany Lions.
Quote of the Year: James Franklin, Head Coach
“Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers”
At first viewed as coach-speak and Belichick-ian, the quote embodied the team’s approach and consistent focus that made Franklin and the Nittany Lions so successful. In fact, with each new opponent, it became a rallying cry for the team and fans en route to a thrilling Big Ten Championship.
Best Play: Blocked Field Goal vs. Ohio State
Other Candidates: 4th and 1 Stop vs. Wisconsin
Let’s just watch it again (and again) and enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpTM-q730Kk