Season review: An unforgettable turnaround for Penn State

Twenty-five years from now, we’re still going to be talking about this season.

James Franklin was supposed to be finished. This team was supposed to be mediocre at best. A devastating 49-10 loss to Michigan and accompanying 2-2 record simply reinforced all that -- right up until one of the greatest turnarounds in Penn State and Big Ten history.

This was a team that seemed to feed on doubt and rally when everyone else counted it out. Against Minnesota, when some fans chanted “Fire Franklin!” in the first half, the offense rebounded and won in overtime. Against Ohio State, an unlikely special-teams play helped spark the greatest home victory in more than 30 years. And, in the Big Ten championship game, when some fans prematurely tweeted about Penn State getting embarrassed, the Nittany Lions overcame a three-touchdown deficit, beat Wisconsin and nearly snagged a spot in the College Football Playoff.

“The last four or five years, everyone’s talked about what Penn State was,” linebacker Brandon Bell said of a team that heads to the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual on a nine-game win streak. “And, finally, we’re talking about what Penn State is now.”

No matter what happens in the postseason, this is a historic year for the Nittany Lions. It’s the season that marked Penn State’s return to national prominence.

Grading the offense: A-minus

The injury-prone offensive line was sometimes overmatched, and the offense struggled to piece together long, sustaining drives. But that’s literally the only criticism here. Penn State’s offense proved to be one of the most exciting in the nation. Sophomore Saquon Barkley was named Big Ten offensive player of the year, and redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley finished so strongly that some opined about his Heisman chances. This unit wasn’t known for long drives -- it ranked No. 121 nationally with a third-down conversion rate of 32.1 percent -- but it didn’t have to be. The Nittany Lions ranked No. 7 in the FBS in producing plays (86) of at least 20 yards, and they were especially strong in the second half. Penn State was the only team to score more than 30 points this season against Wisconsin.

Grading the defense: B-plus

Sure, the defense struggled early on, but that’s bound to happen when seven linebackers are sidelined with injuries. Overall, this unit still ranked within the top 25 in total defense and, nationally, only Michigan recorded more tackles for loss. (The Wolverines had 115; Penn State tied with Clemson at 112.) This was a deep, talented defense without any real weakness. More than two dozen players finished with at least one tackle for loss, and numerous players stepped up at clutch times. Walk-on linebacker Brandon Smith earned conference player of the week honors, and career backup Jordan Smith made a game-saving interception against Minnesota and a key breakup against Ohio State.

Grading the special teams: B

This was the hardest unit to grade because, some weeks, this was the reason Penn State won. Other times, it statistically ranked among the nation’s worst. First, the bad: The Nittany Lions were the only Big Ten team to fumble at least twice on both punt returns and kick returns. Penn State was also among the nation’s worst in return averages, as it didn’t rank above No. 90 nationally on either punts or kickoffs. Elsewhere, however, it bordered on elite. Punter Blake Gillikin placed 45.8 percent of his punts inside the 20, the second-best rate in the conference behind Ohio State’s Cameron Johnston. And Tyler Davis was the B1G’s most accurate field-goal kicker, nailing 22 of 24 attempts. Penn State also managed to upset then-No. 2 Ohio State thanks to two blocked kicks, one of which was returned by Grant Haley for a 60-yard touchdown.

Grading the coaching: A

Franklin is a candidate for the national coach of the year. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead spearheaded the conference’s most remarkable offensive turnaround in nearly a decade, becoming a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry kept his unit on track despite losing three D-linemen to the NFL draft and seven linebackers to injury. (Not bad, considering at least one coach essentially intimated this was a “rebuild.”) And offensive-line coach Matt Limegrover turned the Achilles’ heel of the entire team into a serviceable unit that overcame injuries and allowed just 23 sacks, 21 fewer than the 2014 season. There’s definitely a lot of credit to go around here.

Player of the year: Barkley and McSorley. Yes, we’re supposed to pick only one player here. So, yes, we’re cheating by choosing both. But the success of these two is intertwined, and it just wouldn’t be fair to take one over the other. Barkley is one of the most talented running backs in the country, but he really didn’t take off until McSorley began to factor into the running game. And McSorley was able to thrive because defenses zeroed in on Barkley and often dared Penn State to pass. Right now, this is the best 1-2 punch in the nation.

Top play: Haley’s 60-yard scoop-and-score on a blocked Ohio State field goal for what proved to be the winning play. That solidified Penn State’s Cinderella season. Marcus Allen blocked the 45-yard attempt, and that turned the game right on its head. If Tyler Durbin had instead made that kick, Ohio State would’ve had a touchdown lead with four minutes left in the game. Instead, the Nittany Lions took the 24-21 edge and never relinquished it. It was Penn State’s first victory over a top-two team since 1990. And it was the Nittany Lions’ first top-two win while unranked since 1964.