The Penn State Nittany Lions (1-0) football team overcame a slow start and a defensive touchdown by the MAC’s Kent State Golden Flashes (0-1) and utilized a dominant second half to propel them to a 33-13 win on Saturday.
It’s a new look this year on two fronts for the Penn State offense, with three-year starter Christian Hackenberg off the NFL this season. And if you watched the last Eagles preseason game, well, you know how that’s going.
This year, it’s redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley under center for the blue and white, and a new offensive coordinator in former Fordham University head coach Joe Moorhead.
McSorley provided a big contrast from Hackenberg compared to what Nittany Lion fans have been used to over the past three years, showcasing a more mobile style compared to Hackenberg’s classic pocket-passer look. The hope is that this will lead to a more effective offense from Penn State, as head coach James Franklin utilized a mobile QB during his time in charge of Vanderbilt University’s football team.
There are certainly tougher opponents ahead, but after attending the game in person, I came away mostly impressed with what I saw from McSorley’s first career start. His stat line wasn’t incredible, 16-31 for 201 passing yards and pair of touchdowns, but he also added 47 rushing yards on 14 attempts, proving that his legs will be something that opposing defenses will have to plan for. He doesn’t have the pure arm strength that Hackenberg does, but showed nice touch on almost all of his passes and solid accuracy on his short throws, which as any Penn State fan knows was perhaps Hackenberg’s biggest issue over the past two seasons. The only major blemish was on a sack that led to a fumble and KSU’s defensive touchdown, but hopefully that’s just something he can learn from.
Skill positions on offense are looking like a major strength for Penn State, with WR’s Chris Godwin, Saeed Blacknall, DaeSean Hamilton, and DeAndre Thompkins all returning from last year’s team. Godwin led the team in receptions on Saturday with seven, but it was Hamilton pulling in the TD for the WR corps, with TE Mike Gesicki adding a 4th quarter grab for a score to ice the game. The most hopeful thing for Penn State fans–not a single one of those players is a senior. Oh, and then there’s sophomore RB Saquon Barkley, coming off a 1076-yard freshman season. He picked up 105 yards and a TD to pick up right where he left off from last year’s incredible debut. No matter how good PSU’s offense might end up being this year–next year they’ll almost certainly be even better.
Any Penn State fan knows the offensive line has been a major issue for the past two years, and that unit definitely looked like they will still be a liability to me. Even though Barkley averaged 4.5 yards per carry, a lot of that was solely because of his skill, not because of the blocking. And while there are some metrics that suggest KSU’s defense is actually pretty good (returning nine of 11 starters from last year’s 27th ranked unit), I still would have liked to see more time in the pocket for McSorley. If they’re going to run an effective read-option scheme, blocking will have to improve.
On the defensive side, there wasn’t much to complain about, as Penn State CB Amani Oruwariye‘s stylish pick-six in the 3rd quarter matched KSU’s entire offensive output. The Golden Flahses did pick up 279 yards of offense, but PSU made the important plays and pitched a second-half shutout, leaving little doubt that even the 26-13 3rd quarter lead was nearly insurmountable for KSU.
Everyone’s back in Penn State’s secondary which may prove to be the strongest unit of the defense– while questions remain at LB and D-line. I certainly would have liked to see a little more pressure on the QB, and giving up 6.3 YPC to KSU’s lead running back is concerning. Regardless, I won’t get too nit-picky on a unit that gave up only a pair of field goals in their first game under new defensive coordinator Brent Pry.
Special teams were solid, which is another major plus for a unit that’s struggled at times over the past few years. Tyler Davis was 5/5 on his kicks, and freshman Blake Gillikin averaged 47 yards on six punts in his first game. Coverage was solid, and if you haven’t seen “Big-Toe” Joey Julius’ big-time hit from his second quarter kickoff, you’re missing one of the best highlights from college football’s week one.
It’s a “rivalry” renewed (sorry Pittsburgh, but you’re only 1-7 against us since I was born), as the Nittany Lions travel to Heinz Field face the Pittsburgh Panthers (1-0) for the first time since 2000. The Panthers are coming off a 28-7 win in their opener against Villanova on Saturday. Kickoff is set for noon next Saturday and will be nationally televised by ESPN.