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


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.

No. 6 Penn State-Akron observations: Nittany Lions cruise in shutout

No. 6 Penn State-Akron observations: Nittany Lions cruise in shutout


STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Saquon Barkley rushed 14 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns as No. 6 Penn State drubbed Akron 52-0 in its season opener Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

Trace McSorley also threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, and DeAndre Thompkins returned a punt 61 yards for a score. It was PSU’s first punt return TD since Derrick Williams took one 63 yards against Wisconsin in 2008.

Both of McSorley’s scoring passes went to tight end Mike Gesicki, who had six catches in all.

Nearly all of Penn State’s starters sat out the fourth quarter.

• Barkley was Barkley, scoring on runs of 30 and three yards. It also appeared he went 87 yards for a score in the second quarter, but it was ruled he stepped out at the seven – a play that was for some reason not subjected to replay review. His 30-yard TD later in the period was reviewed, even though he didn’t come anywhere near the sideline. He also caught three passes for 54 yards, including a 43-yarder in the third quarter that set up McSorley’s second scoring strike to Gesicki.

• McSorley overcame an early end-zone interception to go 18 for 25 for 280 yards through the air. He also ran 12 times for 48 yards.

• Thompkins returned four punts for 127 yards in all, an average of 31.8 yards a runback. Penn State’s punt returners averaged 6.5 yards per return last season.

• Tyler Davis missed a 38-yard field goal in the second quarter, his first real miss in 33 career attempts. His two previous misses had both been blocks. He rebounded to hit a career-long 47-yarder in the third quarter.

• For some reason, coach James Franklin felt compelled to use Barkley as his kickoff-return man to start the third quarter, at which point the Lions led 35-0. Seemed like sheer lunacy, given Barkley’s importance to the team.

• The Lions used backup quarterback Tommy Stevens as a running back in the second half. It was in that guise that he caught his first career pass, for a gain of seven yards. He later completed an option pass to DaeSean Hamilton after taking a handoff from McSorley going right. The Lions were leading 45-0 at the time, and perhaps not coincidentally, the Zips were called for personal fouls on two subsequent runs by Stevens, who took over at QB. The second, a targeting foul on defensive end Deon’Tae Moore, resulted in Moore’s ejection.

• As might be expected, PSU dominated the line of scrimmage. The new-look offensive line – Ryan Bates (Archbishop Wood), Steven Gonzalez, Connor McGovern, Brendan Mahon and Chasz Wright – helped the Lions pile up 255 rushing yards, and 577 yards in all. And the defense recorded 14 tackles for loss, including three sacks. Backup defensive end Ryan Buchholz (Great Valley) had 1.5 TFLs, including a sack. Buchholz saw extensive action when the starter, Shareef Miller (George Washington), departed after the first series with a leg injury. He did not return.

• Redshirt freshman defensive end Shaka Toney (Imhotep Charter), renowned for his quickness, saw the first action of his career in the second half, and on one pass rush drew a holding penalty from offensive tackle Jovann Letuli. He also jumped offsides later in the half.

• Hamilton, who finished with three catches for 74 yards, had a rough time in the first half. He had a drop on PSU’s fifth offensive snap, and two other balls – one of which would have gone for a TD – were either thrown a little behind him or a little high. He managed to get his hands on both, but he was unable to come down with either.

• Juwan Johnson (Glassboro, New Jersey) was as good as his preseason billing. Widely viewed as a breakout candidate entering the fall, the redshirt sophomore wide receiver had four catches for 84 yards in his first career start. 

• Saeed Blacknall was viewed as one of the Lions’ key receivers entering the season, but he was listed as the second-stringer behind Thompkins earlier in the week and saw a great deal of action in garbage time.

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.

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.

Penn State 45, Akron 14