In 'most complete game' of James Franklin era, Penn State sends message to Big Ten

In 'most complete game' of James Franklin era, Penn State sends message to Big Ten

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Recent happenings in the Penn State-Akron series (such as it is) have offered a before-and-after worthy of the cheesiest late-night infomercial.

Before: The teams’ 2014 meeting, in James Franklin’s first home game as head coach. PSU led just 7-3 midway through the third quarter and went on to win, albeit unimpressively, 21-3.

After: Saturday’s 52-0 wipeout on the part of the Lions (see observations).

The first game representing the extended low tide of PSU’s program, beset as it was by NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. The second representing the tidal wave the team is now riding.

No, we cannot trust many of the stats compiled by the sixth-ranked Lions on Saturday. Yes, it is dangerous to read too much into a game against an overmatched non-conference opponent. 

At the same time, look where PSU was three years ago, and look where it is now. The team is clearly light years beyond that milepost, clearly a contender to repeat as Big Ten champions, clearly a team on the rise.

“I would definitely say they’re up there,” Zips safety Zach Guiser said.

He faced Oklahoma and Wisconsin earlier in his career, and he called them “entirely different football teams” from Penn State.

“Oklahoma tried to beat us with a fast pace,” he said, “Wisconsin tried to run the ball down our throat and Penn State tried to do a little bit of everything, so they’re very different in what they do. But those three are definitely the best we’ve seen so far.”

On Saturday, the Lions unleashed Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, as is their wont. Barkley rushed 14 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 54 yards. McSorley threw for two TDs and ran for another.

DeAndre Thompkins also returned a punt 61 yards for a score, PSU’s first punt-return TD since Derrick Williams took one 63 yards against Wisconsin in 2008, and the defense produced 14 tackles for loss, three sacks and a turnover.

Coach James Franklin, as a result, called it “probably the most complete game” his team has played since he and his staff arrived in January 2014. 

Seems like a bit of a reach, given the opponent. But again, consider the timeline of the team’s progress, and where the Lions now hope to go.

“I mentioned this before, but last season we kind of (were) that second-half football team,” senior guard Brendan Mahon said. “Today really showed that we put up points in the first half and we played this entire game through and through. It’s something to watch throughout this season.”

Mahon, who missed a sizable chunk of last season with an undisclosed injury, started at right guard, after opening games at both tackle spots and the other guard position in previous years. Earlier this week, Franklin talked about Mahon’s “heavy hands” — “When he hits you,” he said, “it’s like getting hit with two cinder blocks” — and Mahon is only too happy to use them to his best advantage.

“I think we kind of had that physical persona (on Saturday) — the hard-nosed football that Penn State used to be,” he said. “I think we brought that back today and kind of got the ball rolling for this entire season.”

Barkley doesn’t need much help, but in the second quarter, he broke off a run he thought was an 87-yard touchdown, only to learn he stepped out at the 7. Left tackle Ryan Bates (Archbishop Wood) and left tackle Steven Gonzalez paved the way by sealing off their men, and right tackle Chasz Wright — all 6-foot-7 and 366 pounds of him — pulled and obliterated a defender.

“It was literally like how you’d draw it up on paper,” Barkley said.

McSorley ran it in from the 3 two plays later, making it 21-0. And the avalanche continued from there.

Thompkins had, for his part, opened the scoring with his lightning bolt, breaking the school’s long punt-return drought.

“My freshman year I had a big return against Buffalo,” he said, “and throughout the whole program from then to today, that’s always something that’s been talked about: ‘Who’s going to break it? Who’s going to break it?’”

The defense is seeking to break out in its own right, and up front at least, they will do so by committee.

End Ryan Buchholz (Great Valley), who played more than usual when starter Shareef Miller (George Washington) was idled after the first series by an apparent leg injury, had a sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. Two other linemen, Tyrell Chavis and Torrence Brown, shared a sack, and Chavis led the team with three TFLs.

It didn’t end there. Linebackers Manny Bowen and Cam Brown seemed particularly active, more active than their stat lines — Bown was credited with five tackles, Brown four — might indicate. And cornerback Amani Oruwariye contributed an interception. 

Afterward, Buchholz, a redshirt sophomore, allowed that this might be the swiftest defense of which he has been a part.

“Sometimes today the play went away from me,” he said, “and I’d look and you would see Manny come in or Cam come in and take them down right away. I was like, ‘Wow.’”

Again, context is needed. The Lions were supposed to win handily, and they did.

In their minds, it sure beats the alternative. And it just as surely beats where they were three years ago.

Penn State can't keep streak alive against No. 6 Purdue

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Penn State can't keep streak alive against No. 6 Purdue

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Carsen Edwards scored 27 points to lead sixth-ranked Purdue to a 76-73 victory over Penn State on Sunday night.

Dakota Mathias added 18 points and Isaac Haas had 12 points and six rebounds for the Boilermakers (24-5, 13-3 Big Ten), who snapped a season-worst three-game skid.

Tony Carr had 19 points, five rebounds and five assists, Shep Garner had 17 points and Lamar Stevens had 13 points and six rebounds for the Nittany Lions (19-10, 9-7). The loss ended a stretch of six wins in seven games.

Ryan Cline's 3-pointer with 5:31 remaining gave Purdue a 61-58 lead, and the Boilers never trailed the rest of the way.

It wasn't easy for a Purdue team in search of the same offensive flair that made the Boilermakers unbeatable during a program-record 19-game winning streak that stretched from November until a 64-63 loss to Ohio State on Feb. 7. It became more difficult without starting forward Vincent Edwards, one of the team's most consistent players.

Vincent Edwards sat on the bench wearing a walking boot after spraining his left ankle in practice on Saturday. The team disclosed the injury in a statement before tipoff.

It was another uncharacteristic game for the Boilermakers. They trailed by as much nine points in the first half, during which they shot 42.3 percent from the field and went 2 for 9 from 3-point range.

Penn State led 36-32 at halftime.

Big picture 
Penn State: Despite another poor offensive night by Purdue, the Nittany Lions proved their recent hot streak, which included a 79-56 blowout of No. 8 Ohio State, may not have been a fluke. Even after the Boilermakers found a groove in the second half, Penn State still never trailed by more than 11 points.

Purdue: After dropping three straight conference games and falling in the Big Ten standings, the Boilermakers needed to get back on track quickly with just two regular season games remaining.

Up next 
Penn State: The Nittany Lions host Michigan on Wednesday.

Purdue: The Boilermakers are at Illinois on Thursday.

Garner and Carr lead Penn State to 3rd straight win

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USA Today Images

Garner and Carr lead Penn State to 3rd straight win

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Shep Garner scored 16 points and Tony Carr had 15 points to lead Penn State to a 74-52 victory over Illinois on Sunday night.

Illinois missed its first nine second-half shots and didn't score for seven-plus minutes as Penn State went on a 12-0 run to make it 49-36. The Nittany Lions (18-9, 8-6 Big Ten) led by at least nine points the rest of the way.

Carr hit three 3-pointers, grabbed six rebounds and had six assists. Lamar Stevens finished with 11 points, while Mike Watkins and Josh Reaves scored 10 apiece, for Penn State.

Illinois had the lead for more than 15 minutes in the first half, but squandered it late. Carr air balled a 3-pointer from the right wing, but Jamari Wheeler grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Garner, who nailed a corner 3.

On the ensuing play, Mark Alstork stepped on the baseline while inbounding the ball, giving Penn State possession with 3.6 seconds left. Carr scored a layup before the buzzer to take a one-point lead into the break.

The Nittany Lions shot 54.5 percent from the field, outscored Illinois 34-12 in the paint and won their fourth consecutive game against the Illini. Penn State has won six of its last seven overall.

Leron Black led Illinois (12-14, 2-11) with 18 points.

Big Picture
After finishing three games below .500 last season, the Nittany Lions continued their impressive turnaround this year. With a strong finish in conference play, Penn State could make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011.

After scoring career-high 32-points in a 78-69 loss to Wisconsin on Thursday, Trent Frazier was held to just six against Penn State. He has been Illinois' best player in conference play, and without a strong performance from him the Illini struggled.

Up Next
The Illini will face Indiana on the Wednesday night. Illinois knocked off the Hoosiers on Jan. 24 for its first Big Ten victory of the season.

Penn State returns home to face No. 14 Ohio State. The Buckeyes sit atop the Big Ten after a one-point win over No. 3 Purdue last week.