Promising Penn State closes out spring with Blue-White Game

Promising Penn State closes out spring with Blue-White Game

While Penn State turned a corner in 2016, it does not necessarily follow that the Nittany Lions have found a patch of straightaway.

Not when you consider their division -- the Big Ten East, featuring Michigan and Ohio State, is one of college football's best -- and the schedule that lies ahead this fall.

Not when you consider the potential for injury. (And PSU has already had a big one.)

That said, the Lions have just about everybody back from a team that went 11-3, won a conference championship and played in the Rose Bowl in 2016. They have also sorted out some things in the course of spring practice, which wraps up Saturday with the Blue-White Game, a 3 p.m. kickoff in Beaver Stadium. 

And coach James Franklin can only hope that his players were paying attention when he sounded the alarm about complacency at the beginning of spring drills. 

The Langhorne native, 7-6 in each of his first two seasons on the job, talked then about the Lions' not taking things for granted and approaching their business the same way they did last season -- "that we understand that 2016 was nice, and that it was a great experience, but 2017 is a completely different animal."

Time will tell as to whether that message has taken hold, but quarterback Trace McSorley, excellent in his first year as a starter, has told reporters this spring he is still kicking himself over the late interception that set up USC's game-winning field goal in the Arenaball-ish 52-49 Rose Bowl loss to the Trojans. 

And Mike Gesicki, the senior tight end from Manahawkin, N.J., has played the no-respect card, a popular gambit in just about every locker room in America. Specifically, Gesicki told USA Today that standout running back Saquon Barkley didn't receive the notice he deserved last season due to "a lack of respect Penn State gets as a program."

Never mind that Barkley was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2016, and catching 28 balls for 402 yards and four scores. Never mind that Barkley and McSorley are both in this year's Heisman conversation.

And never mind that the team has routinely been ranked near the top of various way-too-early polls for '17. That’s Gesicki's story, and he's sticking to it.

"There were moments throughout the season, after we knocked off (then-No. 2) Ohio State (on Oct. 22), we still felt that people weren't favoring us," he said during an April 11 conference call with reporters. "You watch all the shows, sitting in the hotel all day before games and see people knocking you on TV. It's stuff we can't control. We can't control other people's opinions about us and, at the end of the day, I don't think it affects us."

Even if it might seem otherwise.

Suffice it to say, at least, that the Lions still understand there is work to do, still understand they have mountains to climb.

They don't figure to show much Saturday; they never do in the spring's final scrimmage. Stars like McSorley, Barkley and Gesicki will play little, if at all. Ditto for Ryan Bates, the redshirt sophomore left tackle from Archbishop Wood; he excelled at guard and tackle last year, and now looms as the anchor of a unit that has quickly gone from a team weakness to a strength.

Saturday will be more about the emerging guys. Guys like Juwan Johnson, the redshirt sophomore wide receiver from Glassboro, N.J., who has been the talk of spring ball. Guys like defensive ends Shareef Miller and Shaka Toney, Philadelphia natives who played at George Washington and Imhotep Charter, respectively.

It will also be about cornerback Lamont Wade, an early enrollee from Western Pennsylvania who has made a quick impression. Safety/special teams captain Nick Scott said last week that Wade is "killing it at corner right now," and believes he will be "one of those guys that really helps contribute his first year here."

He might have to, seeing as John Reid, the junior corner from St. Joe's Prep, suffered a knee injury early in the spring, as first reported by Lions247.com. He could miss a sizable chunk of the season, if not all of it. Franklin, in keeping with his standing policy, has declined to address Reid's injury.

The coach has acknowledged that senior Christian Campbell is playing Reid's old spot. And Franklin also told reporters that the 5-9, 190-pound Wade is "physically developed," possesses "tremendous confidence" and has shown himself to be a quick study.

"You never know if he's going to hit the wall as installation [of the defensive system] builds up," Franklin said. "But we haven't seen that yet. I think he'll put himself in place with a good foundation and go into the summer with confidence and have a chance to legitimately compete."

As for Johnson, he is the heir apparent to Chris Godwin, who opted for the NFL draft after capping a team-leading 59-catch season with a brilliant nine-grab, 187-yard, two-touchdown performance against USC. The 6-4, 218-pound Johnson redshirted in 2015 and made his first two career catches while playing primarily on special teams last year; his biggest play was a blocked punt in a late-season rout of hapless Rutgers.

"When you talk about the most improved players on the team," receivers coach Josh Gattis told the Big Ten Network on March 31, "he's one of those guys that comes to mind. He's one of the guys that's going to make a lot of plays for us this upcoming season and help us win a lot of games."

Johnson expects as much. Atop his Twitter page is this quote: "Sleep on me if you want to. I'll wake you up soon."

It is from Sept. 19, 2016.

In the meantime, he has had to become more consistent, more attentive to detail. And he has had to be patient.

"I've always been a person that's been -- not looked down on, but [looked at as], 'He's going to be good; we've got to find out when,'" he said earlier this week.

Which is why the tweet in question is one he "harped on when [he] was younger."

"This offseason I kind of focused on that," he said. "Eventually it worked out for the best."

Miller and Toney are both in the mix at defensive end, after the Lions lost last year's starters, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. While PSU recorded 40 sacks in 2016, seven came in the opener against Kent State. The Lions had none in their losses to USC, Michigan and Pitt.

Redshirt junior end Torrence Brown, naturally, believes the pass rush will be better -- that, in fact, he and his linemates are "improving every day" while jousting with the Bates-led O-line.

"If we keep competing with those guys to the best of our abilities," he said earlier this week, "it will translate to the games and we'll be a great pass-rushing line this year."

Just another matter to consider, now that PSU has turned a corner. Next stop, parts unknown.

No. 2 Penn State-No. 19 Michigan observations: Yeah, Nittany Lions are this good

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USA Today Images

No. 2 Penn State-No. 19 Michigan observations: Yeah, Nittany Lions are this good

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley scored three touchdowns as No. 2 Penn State routed No. 19 Michigan, 42-13, Saturday night.

Barkley scored on runs of 69 and 15 yards in the first quarter, and a 42-yard reception from Trace McSorley with 13:11 left in the game.

The national leader in all-purpose yards per game when play began (217.0), Barkley finished with 176 — 108 on 15 rushes, 53 on three receptions and a 15-yard kickoff return.

McSorley, who ran 11 times for 76 yards and a career-high three touchdowns, clicked on 17 of 26 passes for 282 yards and the score to Barkley. He was also intercepted once and finished with 76 yards on 11 rushes.

Playing before a Beaver Stadium-record crowd of 110,823, the Lions (7-0) piled up a 506-269 yardage advantage despite facing a team that began the night allowing an FBS-best 223.8 yards a game. 

PSU had four touchdown drives of 75 yards or longer and scored the most points against Michigan since Ohio State rang up 42 against the Wolverines in 2015.

Michigan, which scored first-half touchdowns on short runs by Karan Higdon and Ty Isaac, fell to 5-2.

• The Lions had not run a single Wildcat snap this season, until the second play of Saturday’s game. That’s when Barkley took a direct snap, started to his right behind pulling guard Steven Gonzalez, cut back through a gaping hole to his left and outran the Michigan defense for a 69-yard touchdown.

• PSU gobbled up 75 on its first possession and 78 more on its second, a four-play march culminating in Barkley’s 15-yard TD run, on an option pitch from McSorley. In all the Lions had four TD drives of 75 or longer.

• The Lions finished the first quarter with a 14-0 lead, and to date, this season they have outscored their opponents, 90-0, in the opening period. They are the only team in the nation to hold their foes scoreless in that quarter to date.

• The Lions’ fast start obscured some early struggles by McSorley. He overthrew Barkley and tight end Mike Gesicki when both were wide open over the middle, then was intercepted by cornerback David Long when it appeared there was a miscommunication between the QB and Gesicki.

• Coming into the game, Michigan had scored just six touchdowns on 18 trips into the red zone, the Big Ten’s worst conversion rate. Following Long’s interception, the Wolverines drove to a first-and-goal at the PSU 3. They finally punched it in on a one-yard run by Higdon on fourth down.

• UM kicker Quinn Nordin, the one-time Penn State commit, was booed lustily when he lined up for the extra point. He then proceeded to push his kick wide right.

• After Michigan cut the gap to 14-13 on Isaac’s touchdown run with 1:45 left in the half, McSorley whisked the Lions 75 yards in seven plays, a drive that consumed just 52 seconds. McSorley hit three of four passes, including a 36-yarder to DaeSean Hamilton and a 17-yarder to Gesicki on third down. The latter gave PSU a first-and-goal at the 3, and McSorley ran it in from there, with just 53 seconds left in the half.

• McSorley also scored on runs of 13 yards in the third quarter and nine yards in the fourth.

• Barkley, who had a rare drop of a pass in the first half, made a juggling grab of a McSorley throw for his fourth-quarter TD. In the course of the game, he became the first Penn State player with over 3,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards, and the fourth in Big Ten history.

• McSorley and Hamilton clicked all night. The senior wide receiver finished with six receptions for 115 yards.

• Middle linebacker Jason Cabinda led the defense with 13 tackles and was credited with one of the Lions’ seven sacks.

No 2. Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: Defensive struggle with huge stakes

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NBC Sports Philadelphia

No 2. Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: Defensive struggle with huge stakes

No. 2 Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 19 Michigan (5-1, 2-1 Big Ten)
Beaver Stadium, State College
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC

Scouting Penn State
The second-ranked Nittany Lions were idle last week, after beating Northwestern, 31-7, on Oct. 7, as Trace McSorley went 25 for 34 for 245 yards and two touchdowns. McSorley, taking advantage of a defense stacked in an attempt to limit the effectiveness of star running back Saquon Barkley, completed a school-record 15 straight passes in one stretch. Barkley, while held to 75 yards on the ground, did break off a 53-yard touchdown run, one of two scores he had in the game. He leads the nation in all-purpose yards per game (217.0). The Lions, who are also atop the nation in scoring defense (9.0), are led on that side of the ball by linebacker Jason Cabinda and safety Marcus Allen with 40 and 35 tackles, respectively. Fourteen players have had a hand in a sack, and 26 have been part of a tackle for loss.

Scouting Michigan
The No. 19 Wolverines beat Indiana 27-20 in overtime last week, on a 25-yard run by Karan Higdon. Higdon finished with 25 carries for 200 yards and three TDs, all career highs, and to date has rushed for 401 yards (5.7 a carry). Quarterback John O’Korn, who has taken over for the injured Wilton Speight, was just 10 for 20 for 58 yards against the Hoosiers. He has clicked on 54.9 percent of his throws, for 563 yards and a touchdown, and has been picked off four times. UM has allowed the fewest yards per game in the FBS this season (223.8), and while middle linebacker Devin Bush is fourth in the Big Ten in tackles (49) and second in sacks (5), the key to the Wolverines’ D is Maurice Hurst, an eyeblink-quick defensive tackle.

History
Michigan leads the all-time series 13-7 and has won the last three meetings. The Wolverines routed the Lions last year in Ann Arbor, 49-10, in the most one-sided game ever between the two teams. PSU has gone 15-1 since.

Storyline to watch
It’s pretty simple: In a game that has “defensive struggle” written all over it, which offense can gain traction? And which team can avoid a killer mistake? 

What’s at stake
A PSU victory sets up a showdown against No. 6 Ohio State next weekend in Columbus.

Prediction
Penn State 21, Michigan 13.