STATE COLLEGE — Beating Rutgers on Saturday might go down as the day’s sidebar story.
It looks like Penn State will be getting a valuable contributor back in 2020 for what he hopes will be a run toward a Big Ten championship. Tight end Pat Freiermuth announced via his Twitter account after the No. 10 Nittany Lions’ 27-6 win over Rutgers at Beaver Stadium that he intends to return to the team next season after catching
41 passes for 468 yards and 7 touchdowns, all second-best on the team.
Even though he is a true sophomore, Freiermuth spent a fifth prep season at a prep school, meaning three full years have passed since he graduated high school. That made him eligible for early entry into the 2020 NFL Draft, where he was expected to be one of the top tight ends taken if he indeed left. His return gives head coach James Franklin at least one accomplished receiver returning for his 2020 offense, which is losing just one senior starter.
“The brotherhood and family atmosphere in this program is something that I am not ready to leave,” Freiermuth said in a statement released after the game. “The culture coach Franklin and the staff have created here is something very special, and I love being part of it.”
With starter Sean Clifford in sweats and watching from the sideline, freshman quarterback Will Levis made is first career start Saturday and impressed with his power running as he did in relief against Ohio State on Nov. 23.
Levis completed 8 of 14 passes for 84 yards and a 44-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jahan Dotson that broke Rutgers’ back in the fourth quarter. But, he did most of his damage on the ground, picking up a game-high 108 yards on 17 carries.
“That was pretty cool,” Levis smiled. “I never had close to 100 yards (rushing) in a game back in high school, even. I think the most was 40 or something like that.”
It wasn’t a perfect effort, for sure. Levis missed an open KJ Hamler streaking toward the end zone in the third quarter, badly underthrowing the speedster, and he targeted just four different Nittany Lions receivers. Among them, only Hamler had more than one catch.
“Early on, he was pressing a little bit, not just in the pass game, but in the run game, missing some reads and things like that,” Franklin said. “But he ran the ball well, ran the ball hard. This will be great tape for him to learn and grow from.”
Penn State played without a handful of starters, including Clifford, defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields. They also played most of the game without senior corner John Reid, who left the game in the first quarter after a collision with safety Lamont Wade.
Clifford left last week’s game against Ohio State with an apparent leg injury, and Franklin said he could have played against Rutgers. But, it would have affected the way offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne could call the game.
“We just felt like with him, each week, kind of losing mobility, that this would give is the best chance to get him back 100 percent for the bowl game,” Franklin said.
With Franklin’s name still floating around as a potential target of power conference programs looking for head coaches this offseason — namely, Florida State — the possibility that he was coaching his last game at Beaver Stadium certainly wasn’t lost on many in the press.
Asked about it after the game, Franklin’s stance didn’t change, calling the rumors part of modern-day college football.
“There’s nobody that would want this not to be talked about more than me,” he said. “I’m hoping this thing is going to be over very quick. I love Penn State, I love our players and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”