Penn State Football

What’s Penn State’s ‘biggest head-scratcher’ and who was the MVP? Our season awards

Penn State seniors Amani Oruwariye, Nick Scott, Mark Allen, Trace McSorley and Koa Farmer and Johnathan Thomas laugh together as they take a lap around Beaver Stadium after the win over Maryland on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018.
Penn State seniors Amani Oruwariye, Nick Scott, Mark Allen, Trace McSorley and Koa Farmer and Johnathan Thomas laugh together as they take a lap around Beaver Stadium after the win over Maryland on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. adrey@centredaily.com

Penn State’s regular season is in the books, and the team’s eyes are now on the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl against Kentucky. So we thought this would be the perfect time to look back on the season — and hand out our season awards, like “Biggest head-scratcher” and “Offensive MVP.”

Offensive MVP: QB Trace McSorley

Statistically, this may have been McSorley’s worst season of the past three — but there’s no debating his value to this team. At worst, he was still the second-best signal-caller in the conference in 2018.

He guided comebacks against Appalachian State, Indiana and Iowa. And he received universal praise from opposing coaches for his leadership and grit. Against Iowa, for example, in the same breath ABC broadcaster Steve Levy said the Hawkeyes knew an injured McSorley couldn’t run, he took off for a 51-yard rushing score. That counts for something — as do 27 total TDs and 3,000-plus rushing/passing yards.

Defensive MVP: DE Yetur Gross-Matos

Shareef Miller fought through double teams and Shaka Toney proved to be more than just a sack artist, but it was Yetur Gross-Matos — a first-year starter — who led Penn State’s frightening defensive line.

The freakish 6-foot-5 sophomore racked up 20 tackles for loss (second in the Big Ten) and eight sacks. Sixteen of those TFLs came in Penn State’s final seven games.

Despite being snubbed by the coaches, Gross-Matos was named a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media, and rightfully so. He outproduced Michigan’s Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary. And on a national scale, Gross-Matos’ 20 TFLs ranked eighth, ahead of Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Florida State’s Brian Burns — all of whom will be first-round picks come April.

Gross-Matos set himself up to be in that category in 2019.

True Freshman of the Year: LB Micah Parsons

Tight end Pat Freiermuth deserves a big shout-out here, but this one wasn’t close. Parsons made some truly incredible sideline-to-sideline tackles. And no one’s growth and progress was more evident throughout the season than the Harrisburg native.

It says quite a bit that Parsons leads the team in tackles (69) when it took him several weeks to earn a majority of the snaps. It’s unique for a freshman to show flashes of dominance like Parsons has ... but Parsons is a unique athlete. He should be a freshman All-American.

Breakout Player of the Year: WR KJ Hamler

Gross-Matos, Parsons and Freiermuth would be fine picks here. But Hamler changed the complexion of Penn State’s season in more ways than one. The 5-foot-9 speedster nicknamed “The Human Joystick” hit the acceleration button early and often this year, most notably saving the Nittany Lions from Week 1 embarrassment. Appalachian State had Penn State on the ropes at Beaver Stadium. But it was Hamler’s 52-yard kickoff return and fourth-quarter touchdown catch that gave Penn State a shot in overtime.

That was Hamler’s coming-out party, and he built on it. The redshirt freshman led Penn State in catches (41) and receiving yards (713) and ranked third in the Big Ten in yards per kickoff return (26.0).

Best game performance: QB Trace McSorley vs. Ohio State

Yes, it’s rare for the best performance to come during a 27-26 loss. But this was as close to a perfect game as McSorley could’ve played. He set a school record with 461 total yards — 286 passing, 175 rushing — to account for 94 percent of the offense.

So, sure, Penn State lost. But that wasn’t on McSorley, who turned in one of the greatest offensive performances in Penn State history. It’s just a shame such a performance was wasted.

Best play: WR Juwan Johnson’s one-handed catch

Johnson did his best Odell Beckham Jr. impression against Ohio State and broke Twitter in the process.

The 6-foot-4 receiver’s inconsistency and unspecified injury hampered his season, but his 31-yard catch in front of a White Out crowd was easily the Nittany Lions’ best play.

“That’s the catch of the year through five weeks,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit bellowed on the broadcast. “I mean, are you kidding me?”

Biggest head-scratcher: Fourth-and-5 play-call against Ohio State

There have been plenty of bizarre Penn State moments this season — raise your hand if you’ve grumbled, “Why are(n’t) they calling a timeout here?” sometime this year — but this play will go down in Penn State history as one of the worst. Five years from now, it’ll still be talked about.

Let’s jog your memory. Penn State found itself on the OSU 43-yard line with 1:16 left in the game while trailing 27-26. It was fourth-and-5 and three timeouts were called before the play, including two by Penn State. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne decided to catch Ohio State off-guard by keeping the same play — only the Buckeyes expected it. RB Miles Sanders ran up the middle for a loss, keeping the ball out of the hands of McSorley, who had accounted for 94 percent of the offense.

It might’ve been the biggest head-scratcher of Franklin’s tenure.

Quote of the year: James Franklin’s post-Ohio State speech

After Penn State’s one-point loss against the Buckeyes, Franklin was emotional. Very emotional. And he made a claim that went viral and ignited discussion across Penn State’s fan base.

“The reality is, we’ve gone from an average football team, to a good football team, to a great football team. But we’re not an elite team yet. ... The work that it’s going to take to get to an elite program is going to be just as hard as the ground and the distance that we’ve already traveled to get there.

“Right now, we’re comfortable being great. And I’m going to make sure that everyone in our program, including myself, is very uncomfortable. Because you only grow when you’re uncomfortable. We are going to break through and become an elite program.”

Most disappointing position group: Wide receivers

This one likely doesn’t even need to be explained — because their struggles were showcased every week. Drop, drop, drop.

Penn State’s receivers couldn’t do the one thing that receivers need to do: Catch the ball. In fact, they were among the nation’s worst at it. Through five games, McSorley had completed just 53.2 percent of his passes. But if his receivers had caught every catchable ball? According to numbers provided by Pro Football Focus, his completion rate would’ve been 65.4 percent.

That’s a big difference. And it continued throughout the year for Penn State, becoming somewhat of a weekly punchline. Wideout Juwan Johnson, a junior, was projected by one analyst in the preseason as being a top-10 2019 NFL draft pick. If he declared early right now, he might not even be drafted. That’s one heck of a freefall — but it’s the epitome of this position group’s season.

Best position group: Defensive line

This isn’t even really a question.

Gross-Matos emerged as one of the nation’s most productive and imposing defensive ends, Miller quietly racked up seven sacks, Toney single-handedly secured Penn State’s win at Indiana, and that’s just the pass-rushers. Robert Windsor recorded 7.5 sacks, while Kevin Givens flashed NFL-type athleticism at defensive tackle.

The front four anchored a unit that averaged 3.58 sacks per game — the second-best mark in the country. Sean Spencer ought to get a raise. Not only did he recruit a defensive line littered with Sunday potential, but he helped mold it into the Big Ten’s best front and the strength of the 2018 Nittany Lions.

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