Record: 11-2 (8-1 in Big Ten)
Season Credentials: Big Ten Champions, current 9-game winning streak
In the 2016-17 collegiate year, no group of student-athletes has accomplished more despite injury than Penn State’s football club. “I don’t think I’ve ever been through anything like this,” lamented head coach James Franklin after a 49-10 September road loss to the Michigan Wolverines that sank PSU’s record to 2-2. Few could have predicted then that the season would culminate in a Big Ten championship.
In Indianapolis on December 3rd, the Nittany Lions faced a 28-14 halftime deficit, but held the burly Wisconsin Badgers to 3 points in the 2nd half in what has been described as an “epic” comeback title win. Sophomore QB Trace McSorley was named MVP in a multiple record-breaking performance, going 22 of 31 for 384 yards with 4 TD tosses (the most in Big Ten Championship Game history) and breaking school records for passing yards and touchdowns.
Junior receiver Saeed Blacknall caught 2 McSorley missiles in the end zone and finished with a title-game record 155 yards, while classmate Daeshan Hamilton caught 8 passes. But the real story might have been the PSU defense, which overcame a season of adversity to shut out the Badgers in the 4th quarter. The Nittany Lions stopped Wisconsin running back Corey Clement on a 4th down and 1 deep in Penn State territory with 1:01 left in the game.
In the Michigan loss, all 3 of State’s starting linebackers were out with injuries. Former scout-teamer Brandon Smith, subbing in at MLB, was ejected in the 2nd quarter for a targeting foul. The fiery Franklin blamed officials, claiming that the walk-on was “going for an interception” on the play. The resulting center-field void left PSU’s defense helpless against Jim Harbaugh’s squad, who rushed for 326 yards in the lopsided romp.
But the Nittany Lions would not lose another game. On October 8th, Smith would become a rags-to-riches success story by recording 14 solo tackles and picking off a pass in a win over Maryland, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. 2 Saturdays later, PSU shocked the college football universe with a dramatic 24-21 comeback victory over then-undefeated Ohio State.
Franklin coaches with an edge, which has undoubtedly helped the squad fight through trips to the infirmary ward in 2016-17. The skipper is pleased that the VCFP has given the team a chance to prove itself at the highest level. “The Virtual College Football Playoff is a great opportunity to brush aside the politics that have kept these young men from having the national championship shot they so richly deserve,” says the coach. “We look forward to proving there is no tougher or more resilient team in the country than the Penn State Nittany Lions.”
With Penn State facing Chris Petersen’s #4-seed Washington Huskies in a VCFP Quarterfinal contest, fans are looking forward to the match-up of McSorley versus talented Washington QB Jake Browning.