There were several key plays that led to Penn State’s improbable run to the College Football Playoff. The big play was the game-winning pass by Trace McSorley to Saquon Barkley, which sent the Nittany Lions to the Cotton Bowl. But there were a lot more factors that led to success. Here are the top 5.
Trace McSorley’s Game-Winning Pass
One of the most talked-about plays of the 2018 season was Trace McSorley’s game-winning throw to Saquon Barkley for a 45-yard touchdown that stunned the undefeated Buckeyes.
It came at the end of an incredible comeback effort that started with Penn State down 31-10 in the fourth quarter. The Nittany Lions fought their way back to tie the game at 31. After a stalled drive, McSorley found a wide-open Barkley in the end zone for a 45-yard touchdown, sending Penn State to the Cotton Bowl to face off against Ohio State.
The play was named the game-winner by ESPN’s Stats & Information team, which determined it was the 45th-ranked play in the history of the NFL. It was also the longest non-scoring pass play ever scored in the playoffs, as well as the longest pass play from scrimmage by a quarterback in NFL playoff history. (ESPN Stats & Information)
Saquon Barkley’s Incredible Rose Bowl Performance
On the day of the 2018 NFL Draft, Saquon Barkley had a few solid options in terms of where he could go in the first round. The New York Giants were in desperate need of a running back, and the Indianapolis Colts liked his size and speed combination. The two teams even discussed a possible trade that would have sent Barkley to Indianapolis. (NFL Network)
But Barkley decided to go to Penn State, where he would be joining a group of dynamic offensive players on a track team that already included a quarterback and two wide receivers. It was a move that paid off, as Barkley turned in an incredible Rose Bowl performance that helped the Nittany Lions reach the College Football Playoff.
Barkley rushed for 1,607 yards and 20 touchdowns, caught 21 passes for 250 yards and three more scores, and returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in his debut season at Penn State. (ESPN)
The Total Team Effort
This one may be tough to quantify, but it’s important to point out just how integral the entire team effort was in Penn State’s improbable run to the College Football Playoff. Without all the players making key contributions, this wouldn’t have been possible. (Saban)
In the middle of the 2018 season, Penn State was ranked No. 10 in the country. Then came the meltdown in Happy Valley. After their 45-16 loss to Michigan State, the Nittany Lions dropped out of the rankings for the rest of the season and didn’t re-enter until after the regular season was over. (ESPN Stats & Information)
But a lot of credit goes to the players, as they battled back from a 31-10 deficit in the fourth quarter and put up a fight that made Ohio State uncomfortable down to the wire. The four-game winning streak that followed wasn’t easy, either. (ESPN Stats & Information)
And in the grand scheme of things, it’s important to note that the 2018 season was just a small footnote in the life of Penn State football. The Lions have won at least 10 games in eight of the past 10 seasons, made three playoff appearances, and won two Big Ten titles. (ESPN Stats & Information)
Whatever happens in the future, the 2018 season will be remembered for a long time as the comeback season for Penn State football. (Nittany Lions)
New Coach James Franklin
Even with a potent offense, it’s not enough to have All-American caliber players. You need a good coach to get the most out of those players. (Saban)
When James Franklin became the 17th head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, he inherited a team that won just 13 games over the last two seasons. (Penn State)
But even though the team was 1-2 headed into the 2018 season, Penn State still had plenty to look forward to. The school had just parted ways with one of the greatest coaches in CFB history, Joe Paterno, and Franklin was eager to get to work.
Franklin’s no-nonsense approach got the best of him, as he won nine games his first year, including an upset victory over No. 3 Ohio State. (ESPN Stats & Information) And he did it while getting credit for making an efficient use of time. (Chronicle)
Now Penn State is a trendy pick to make the playoffs for a fourth straight year, and the program’s stock has never been higher. (ESPN Stats & Information)
The Offense Rebuilds
In 2008, the year before he retired, Joe Paterno overhauled Penn State’s offense. His successor, Bill O’Brien, inherited a fairly conventional attack that relied on the short passing game and running back Dion Lewis. (Saban)
This season, with Ryan Day at the helm, O’Brien and Co. went in a different direction. On paper, Penn State’s 2018 offense looked very similar to the 2017 version that averaged 39.4 points per game. But there were key differences. (ESPN Stats & Information)
For one, Penn State replaced four-star running back Saquon Barkley with smaller-school standout Mike Gesicki. And instead of relying on a short passing game, the Nittany Lions went with a more traditional approach with a new-age skill position player in Ryan Day. (Saban)
Day, a former quarterback, spent his entire 2017 campaign backing up Trace McSorley. Over the summer, he lobbied to be the starter. (ESPN Stats & Information) And while McSorley’s passing attack was nothing short of prolific, Day’s deep-ball accuracy and YAC ability make him a perfect fit for Penn State’s air raid offense. (Saban)
It’s been a while since Penn State has operated at such high levels of production. (ESPN Stats & Information)
The success of the 2018 team has been a breath of fresh air for a program that had been building toward this year for a while. (Nittany Lions)
And while we can’t put into words what this season has meant for the Nittany Lions or the city of State College, we can say that it feels good to be alive during a time of renewal for Penn State football. (GoPSUsports.com)