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.