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.

Penn State commit arrested for armed robbery of Wawa

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AP Images

Penn State commit arrested for armed robbery of Wawa

This post appeared on College Football Talk on Saturday

Or will that be former Penn State recruit?

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Isheem Young was one of three individuals arrested Friday in connection with the armed robbery of a Wawa convenience store in South Philadelphia this past summer. One of the two alleged accomplices is Young’s brother, the manager of the store that was robbed, while the other an unnamed getaway driver.

The Inquirer reports that the 18-year-old Young is facing charges of robbery, conspiracy, firearms violations and related offenses. He is currently being held in lieu of a $150,000 bond.

It’s alleged that Young and his partners in crime made off with $13,600 in cash from the store’s safe. A police report stated that Young entered the store armed with a black revolver and committed the robbery.

Young committed to play his college football at Penn State in mid-July; two weeks later is when he allegedly committed the crime. He was 17 years old when the incident happened.

A four-star 2018 recruit, he’s rated as the No. 12 safety in the country, the No. 5 player at any position in the state of Pennsylvania and the No. 151 player overall on 247Sports.com‘s composite board.

The new early-signing period for college football, incidentally, kicks off in less than three weeks.

Penn State can't get by Khalil Iverson, Wisconsin

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USA Today Images

Penn State can't get by Khalil Iverson, Wisconsin

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The last 48 hours weren't easy for the Wisconsin Badgers who had all day Sunday plus a long flight into Happy Valley on Monday to stew over their worst home loss in nearly a decade.

Penn State nearly extended that misery, but a potential go-ahead 3-pointer by Tony Carr bounced off the rim with two seconds to play and the Badgers held on for a 64-63 win.

"It's nice to see a bounce back and look like a Wisconsin team should look," Badgers coach Greg Gard said.

Khalil Iverson scored 14 of his 16 points in the first half, Nate Reuvers added 11 points and Ethan Happ grabbed 10 rebounds for the Badgers (4-5, 1-1 Big Ten), who snapped a two-game losing streak.

Mike Watkins scored a career-high 22 points for the Nittany Lions (7-3, 1-1 Big Ten) who battled back from a 17-point deficit with 9:40 to play. Carr added 16 points and Shep Garner made 13 for the Nittany Lions who were trying for their first 2-0 start in conference play since 2007.

Penn State played its third game, and first at home, in six days and struggled to shoot the ball for most of the night. The Nittany Lions made just 9 of 26 field goals in the first half, trailed 31-25 at halftime and were just 3-for-21 over the final 1:50 of the first and the first 10 minutes of the second.

"We dug a little deeper because we looked very sluggish in the first half," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said.

The Badgers led 51-36 with 9:40 to play, but Garner drained back-to-back jumpers shortly thereafter to spark a 21-9 run that cut Wisconsin's lead to 60-57 with 1:53 left.

A pair of Garner free throws with less than a minute to play made it a one-point game before the teams traded free throws over the final 43 seconds. D'Mitrik Trice closed it out at the line on 4-of-4 shooting for the Badgers.

"I knew we'd have to be really dialed-in and gritty and persevere," Gard said. "I expected the whole game to be like the last four minutes and fortunately we were able to make enough plays and get enough stops to hang on."

Built Ford tough
Carr got his shot after forward Aleem Ford bounced the game's final free throw off the rim on the other end of the floor. He didn't get another chance thanks in part to Ford's hustle to get back on defense.

When Carr's shot rang off the rim, it took a bounce toward a Penn State player in the corner. Ford grabbed hold of the ball to force a jump ball and prevent the Nittany Lions from getting any kind of chance.

Ford's late recovery came in the absence of usual post presences Happ and Davison, who both had fouled out.

"He really hustled for that loose ball," Gard said. "There were a lot of winning plays, so to speak that were made. "We need to make better decisions down the stretch so that it doesn't get to that point."

Trusting Carr
Chambers had no issue with Carr, who was just 5-for-22 from the field, pulling up for the final 3-pointer even though Penn State's crafty point guard might've had room toward the hoop.

The clock was ticking and Chambers trusts his leading scorer who entered the game with 20.6 points per game, 39 assists and 19-for-32 from 3-point range.

"Whatever Tony thought," Chambers said. "I'm not in his vision. I'm on the sideline. I don't know what he saw but he's a heck of a player and he makes really good decisions. So I'm going to trust that decision."

Tough stats to swallow
Wisconsin's bench chipped in 25 points to Penn State's one.

Meanwhile, of Penn State's 29 misses, 11 were layups that didn't fall.

The big picture
Wisconsin: The Badgers are the only team to have played four ranked opponents so far and were tied or within a basket with two minutes left in three of those games. They looked better than their record inside the Bryce Jordan Center, matching Penn State's physical play throughout and frustrating Penn State's shooters all night.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions continue to play solid defense, but those stingy efforts will be for nothing if Penn State's shooters continue to miss like they did early and midway through against the Badgers. Penn State finished 26 for 50 from the floor.

Up next
Wisconsin concludes a three-day trip through the Keystone State at Temple (4-2) on Wednesday.

Penn State hosts George Washington (4-4) on Saturday.