No. 6 Penn State vs. Akron: Nittany Lions look to hit ground running in opener

No. 6 Penn State vs. Akron: Nittany Lions look to hit ground running in opener

No. 6 Penn State vs. Akron
Beaver Stadium, State College, Pennsylvania
Saturday, noon, ABC

Scouting Penn State
The sixth-ranked Nittany Lions, 11-3 and Big Ten champions in 2016, are looking to take another step in James Franklin’s fourth year as head coach. Running back Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1,496 yards last season, is a preseason All-American and Heisman Trophy candidate. Quarterback Trace McSorley set single-season school records for passing yardage (3,614), touchdowns (29) and total offense (3,979) last season.

In all there are nine returning starters on offense, including tight end Mike Gesicki, who is also a preseason All-American, and left tackle Ryan Bates (Archbishop Wood). While PSU is without cornerback John Reid (St. Joe’s Prep) because of a knee injury, six defensive starters return, notably middle linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen. Allen topped the team with 110 tackles in 2016, the first player at his position to pace the Lions in that department since 2002.

Scouting Akron
The Zips, coached by former Auburn boss Terry Bowden (son of Bobby), return 15 starters from a team that went 5-7 a year ago. Quarterback Thomas Woodson has started most of the last two years, but missed four games in ’16 because of injury. He wound up completing 60.3 percent of his passes for 2,079 yards and 18 touchdowns, with six interceptions. Van Edwards (492 yards, 4.9 ypc) is the top returning rusher, while Austin Wolf (36 receptions for 550 yards and five TDs) is the leading returning receiver. Tra’Von Chapman, who played QB last year, has moved to wideout. Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert Jr. (122 tackles) is a Bednarik Award candidate.

History
Penn State has won all five meetings, including a 21-3 verdict in 2014, Franklin’s first home game as head coach.

Storyline to watch
Whether the Lions can hit the ground running. They were outscored 223-194 in first halves last season, but outscored their opponents 332-133 in second halves and overtimes.

What’s at stake
PSU has lofty aspirations this season. They can assuage the masses by cuffing around a Mid-American opponent.

Prediction
Penn State 45, Akron 14

Penn State stays at No. 2 in AP poll after impressive win over Michigan

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AP Images

Penn State stays at No. 2 in AP poll after impressive win over Michigan

Penn State looked like a bona fide National Championship contender Saturday in its blowout win over Michigan (see story)

That said, the Nittany Lions remained one spot behind unanimous No. 1 Alabama, who beat Tennessee on Saturday, at No. 2. In fact, the top eight teams remain the same from last week's poll, meaning that No. 3 Georgia, No. 4 TCU and No. 5 Wisconsin round out the top five.

With their statement win over the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions knocked Michigan, previously No. 19, entirely out of the Top 25.

Penn State faces its highest-ranked opponent of the season Saturday, when the Nittany Lions travel to Columbus, Ohio, to play No. 6 Ohio State. 

For this week's full AP poll, click here

Penn State sprung some surprises on Michigan in blowout victory

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USA Today Images

Penn State sprung some surprises on Michigan in blowout victory

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It was 11:23 p.m. Saturday night — James Franklin, poised to address reporters in the Beaver Stadium media room, knew the time because he checked a cellphone lying before him — and Penn State’s coach said that would allow him exactly 37 minutes to enjoy the 42-13 victory over Michigan (see observations).

After that, it was time to move on, time for the second-ranked Nittany Lions to prepare for the next step down a treacherous path. That involves a visit to No. 6 Ohio State next weekend, with another trip, to No. 18 Michigan State, to follow.

Franklin wasn’t about to discuss the Buckeyes within that precious 37-minute window. There will be time enough for that in the days to come.

But what seems apparent is the Lions have the ability and adaptability to run with the Big Ten’s big dogs — that if they lose next week, it will be because of the Buckeyes’ strengths, not their weaknesses.

On Saturday night, PSU was as good as it has been against a quality team in Franklin’s three-plus seasons on the job, outgaining the No. 19 Wolverines, 506-269, and unleashing Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley for three touchdowns apiece.

“Everybody’s been saying we haven’t been playing anybody this year,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “Obviously we played somebody today.”

Somebody who came away pretty, pretty impressed.

“They hit us on quite a few plays that we have defensed well this year,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought their execution was really good tonight, right from the beginning.”

As in, the second play from scrimmage. That’s when Barkley lined up in the Wildcat — a formation the Lions hadn’t shown all year — and zipped 69 yards for a touchdown. He then capped their second possession by scoring on an option pitch, something else PSU hadn’t done much this season.

Franklin had said in the days leading up to the game the Lions had something up their sleeves, that they were waiting to spring some stratagems on the Big Ten heavyweights. The wrinkles, he added Saturday, were things they had worked on during the preseason.

“The fact that we have some recall helps,” he said.

So too did the fact they had a week off to prepare for the Wolverines.

“We watched, probably, seven different games of Michigan film,” Hamilton said. “It really helped a lot.”

Michigan cut the gap to 14-13, but then the Lions ran away and hid. It was difficult to find fault with any aspect of their performance, though Franklin tried. He thought the defense could have handled sudden change better, seeing as Michigan charged downfield for a touchdown after McSorley threw a first-quarter interception.

Barkley tried, too. On a day when he generated 176 all-purpose yards — 108 of them on the ground — the Heisman hopeful fixated on his second-quarter drop of a McSorley pass, on a wheel route down the left sideline.

“Sometimes I overthink and I just put myself in bad situations,” Barkley said. “I should have just caught it first. I was thinking score. I was thinking about catching the ball. I felt the safety. I felt his presence. I wanted to try to make him miss and find a way to get into the end zone.”

He atoned with a 42-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter, though he juggled that one, too.

“I was able to run through it,” he said. “It humbles you again, makes you realize you’ve got to put a little more work in. You’ve got to find a way to make those plays.”

Especially now that the celebration, brief as it was, is over. It’s time to take another step down a treacherous path, time to find out where it might lead.