ARLINGTON, Texas – The mood in the Penn State locker room at AT&T Stadium was a jovial one after the Nittany Lions dropped the curtain on 2019 with their third 11-win season in the last four.
And why not? The consensus opinion of how the Lions would fare this year seemed divided between records of 8-4 and 9-3. Trips to Iowa and Ohio State would be difficult. Michigan was supposedly on the rise, and Michigan State had been a perennial annoyance, especially in East Lansing.
However, Penn State went 3-1 in those games, with a 28-17 loss to Ohio State representing the smallest margin of victory for the Buckeyes all season.
“I think when you go all the way back to before the season started, nobody was really talking about Penn State, even within our own conference. Those other teams were getting most of the publicity,” coach James Franklin said Saturday after his team closed the season with a 53-39 victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.
“And here we are in another New Year’s Six game and had an opportunity to win. This is a young football team. Again, wasn’t a whole lot of expectations coming into the season. I think this is a team that kind of lays the foundation for the future – three New Year’s Six bowls in four years.”
Penn State (11-2, 7-2 Big Ten) squeezed into the major bowl picture by finishing 10th in the College Football Playoff ranking, continuing a run that had them fifth, ninth and 12th the previous three years.
Now the main task for Penn State is what it’s been those four years -- creating a path to its first appearance in the College Football Playoff. To do that, of course, Franklin must find and develop players whose skill levels are comparable to those at Ohio State, still the kings of the Big Ten East.
The Nittany Lions’ 2020 recruiting class was highly ranked but once again behind the Buckeyes. They signed a quarterback and two running backs, meaning they’ll have five signal-callers and six backs competing for playing time next season provided none of them enters the NCAA transfer portal.
Franklin does not want to experience the losses his program sustained last year, when 13 players, including eight graduate transfers, left for other schools. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Justin Shorter, a five-star recruit when he signed with the Lions, put his name in the portal last month.
The coach also will get answers from players who are considering leaving early to enter the NFL draft, the most notable being wide receiver KJ Hamler. The departure of Hamler, a dangerous return man who caught a team-high 56 passes this season, would leave the Lions short of experience at wideout.
Defensive end Shaka Toney, who starred at Imhotep Charter, and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields also are mulling their futures. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos already has declared for the draft.
To review the 2019 season, other than wins over Idaho (79-7) and Maryland (59-0), the Nittany Lions didn’t overwhelm opponents but mostly found a way to get the job done. The defense was rock-solid against the rush although the secondary sprung some leaks at times. Sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons was a consensus All-America and displayed his abundant talents with an excellent performance against Memphis.
The offense, directed by first-year starter Sean Clifford, had a tendency later in the season to operate in fits and spurts. The unit was on point Saturday, grinding out 396 yards on the ground with sophomore Journey Brown going for 202. However, Clifford didn’t look the same after suffering an undisclosed injury Nov. 9 against Minnesota, and he was not consistent with his throws in the bowl game.
New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca joined the Nittany Lions on Thursday in Dallas and will study the players he’s about to coach, likely figuring out ways to stop the lulls and helping Clifford improve and limit hard hits.
The schedule, which was backloaded with two games against undefeated teams in November, will be difficult on the front end in 2020 with games at Virginia Tech and Michigan and back-to-back Beaver Stadium contests versus Iowa and Ohio State.
Franklin felt this year’s Nittany Lions were the most tight-knit group in his six seasons and has momentum to carry into the next season, but he’ll keep working to try to close the gap on Ohio State and other elite programs.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do in a lot of different areas,” he said, “but I think most people would agree that the program is headed in the right direction. We’re developing well. We’re game-planning well. We’re recruiting well. Really, at this point of where we are as a program, you’ve got to do it all at a very, very high level.”