“We have more heart than I think at my three years that we’ve ever had. We got a bunch of dudes that are not gonna give up, we’re not gonna to quit, and we’re gonna do whatever it takes to come back and win.”
Four months later, those words by tight Mike Gesicki ring true. Gesicki made that comment after the heartbreaking September loss to Pitt. In that game, Penn State found itself behind 28-7 at one point, came back, and nearly won. Against the second best team in the nation, it trailed by 17, but found a way to come back and win. In Indianapolis, the Nittany Lions trailed by three touchdowns, and still went on to win.
There is no denying it: this Penn State football team has more grit and perseverance than we’ve seen from a team in a long time. It didn’t matter how it happened or who provided the final blow, Penn State fought until the final whistle. This team won games off field goal blocks, defensive stands, clutch field goals, and miraculous offensive plays. The scary thing is, it’s only getting started.
Next year Penn State brings back some of the best players in the nation at their respective positions while adding significant depth thanks to some spectacular recruiting by James Franklin. On offense, the only starters leaving are starting center Brian Gaia and wide receiver Chris Godwin. While Gaia was vital to the offensive line’s turnaround this year, Matt Limegrover has plenty of talent he can groom to replace him — with center Connor McGovern emerging as the likely candidate to take his spot and move into his natural position. Godwin’s departure certainly hurts as well, but there’s plenty of young receivers eager to contribute like Irvin Charles, Juwan Johnson, Brandon Polk, Dae’Lun Darien to name a few.
Let’s not forget, the offense is also returning arguably the best running back in the nation in Saquon Barkley along with arguably the best tight end in the conference, Mike Gesicki, and one of the nation’s best quarterbacks and Heisman candidate Trace McSorley. All three of these playmakers improved drastically in the past calendar year, and one can only imagine what they’ll be capable of after another eight months of preparation.
Penn State loses a few more starters on defense but is still bolstered by strong returning leadership. Brandon Bell, Garrett Sickels, Malik Golden, and Evan Schwan all depart for the NFL, but defensive guru Brent Pry has plenty to work with in terms of young talent. Former five-star defensive end Shane Simmons — a player Franklin’s raved about during his run on the scout team this year — figures to be a prime candidate to earn either a starting spot or a rotational position. Rising seniors Jason Cabinda and Marcus Allen also return, which gives the Nittany Lions an established veteran nucleus along with significant production — especially against the run.
All this experience returning hasn’t been lost on the many college football analysts out there. Kirk Herbstreit made Penn State his No. 4 pre-season team, and Las Vegas Superbook says Penn State has 30/1 odds to win it all next year.
These young Nittany Lions proved time and time again they could produce when the odds were against them — which bodes well for the team as it adds a crucial year of experience to its collective belt.
The Rose Bowl loss a couple weeks ago was obviously heart-breaking, but in the long run it’s just another bit of adversity this team will overcome. Adversity like that contest — or losing all your starting linebackers to injury — is what has made Penn State work for its success. This team enters 2017 prepared for anything thrown its way.
No one believed this season would end the way it did, and most people will probably count out the Nittany Lions at some point next year too, but that doesn’t matter to these players. Next year, Penn State is coming back stronger than ever, and with a chip on its shoulder, ready to defy the odds once again.