The cold, rainy, and all together dreary weather kept thousands away from the season opener, and for awhile, they were not missing much. For about three quarters on Saturday afternoon, it seemed like the 10-0 halftime lead built by the Lions would be sufficient to escape with a win. It was not until Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata connected with Ron Willoughby on a 14-yard touchdown throw a little over midway through the third quarter that it even felt like the Bulls would put any points on the board.
Those 10 first half points came in a span of just a little over three minutes in the second quarter, both on short fields. The first, a 22-yard Brandon Polk end-around was set up by a 58-yard punt return from redshirt freshman speedster DeAndre Thompkins. The second, a Joe Julius 22-yard field goal, came after Anthony Zettel broke up a Licata screen, knocking it right into the hands of Carl Nassib. PSU was unable to punch it in from the Bulls' 12 yard line, settling for the short kick.
Perhaps the biggest moment of the first 30 minutes came on the half's final play. Penn State had mounted something of a drive in the final 70 seconds, taking the ball down to the Buffalo 15. That final play was a Kyle Carter reception that came up just short of the sticks, setting up third down and a likely spike to stop the clock to set up a field goal. Instead, Andrew Nelson, who moved to left tackle as part of a revamped offensive line, remained on the turf behind the play in obvious pain. Replays showed a Buffalo lineman rolling up the back of the sophomore's leg. With no timeouts left, the rules dictate a 10-second runoff, and subsequently, the end of the half. The three potential lost points were huge, but the apparent serious knee injury to undoubtedly PSU's best offensive lineman loomed much larger.
The second half started much like the first, with both teams trading punts, before the Bulls mounted an 11 play, 78-yard drive that ended with the 14-yard Licata to Willoughby touchdown. Suddenly the Lions found themselves leading by just three points, and you could not help but wonder if things would unravel. Instead of crumbling like they did a week ago in Philadelphia, Penn State responded with three straight scoring drives, essentially ending the game.
The first of those drives lead to only three points, but with two third down conversions (four yards from Akeel Lynch, and 11 yards on a Hackenberg to Godwin pass) allowed PSU to sustain arguably their best drive of the season to that point. The drive would stall at the Buffalo four, but for the first time all day, the offense began to show some rhythm, and should have had seven instead of three. Christian Hackenberg found tight end Mike Gesicki streaking down the sideline with a couple steps on the defender and a likely TD. Hack hit him right in stride with the throw, only to see the ball skip of his hands. Later, Gesicki appeared to have a walk in touchdown on third and goal, but again failed to catch the ball cleanly, setting up the 21-yard Julius kick.
Bob Shoop's defense would force a quick three-and-out, setting up the key drive of the game. Penn State would take over at their own 38, and freshman tailback Saquon Barkley took over. His first two touches of the drive went for 33 yards and then 17, leaping a Buffalo defender in the process on the latter. Those two carries took the Lions down to the Buffalo 12, and undoubtedly lit something of a fire under the PSU sideline, along the fans who remained. Two plays later, Hackenberg would find to DaeSean Hamilton on a wide receiver screen, and the sophomore receiver walked into the end zone to go up 20-7.
Following another quick three-and-out, Barkley and Penn State again took the field with a chance to put the nail in the Buffalo coffin. Six plays, 74 yards, and 1:54 later, they did just that. Barkley capped the drive with a nine yard run, but the 38-yard Hackenberg to Chris Godwin throw was the big play of the drive, as was a 15-yard pass interference call earlier, which likely prevented a Godwin score on another beautifully thrown deep ball.
Buffalo would add a late score to make things appear slightly closer, and possibly costing a few folks a few dollars.
All in all, it was not the world's prettiest game, and not one we will remember a year or two from now in all probability. But it was a win, and just maybe, a spark of confidence for an offense that so desperately needed one.
Three Completely Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts
1. After the game, Franklin was, not surprisingly, rather vague about Andrew Nelson's prognosis. He said the sophomore tackle had been dealing with a long term issue, and Saturday's injury was related. His status for next weekend's game versus Rutgers is uncertain. However, after a shaky first few plays, JUCO transfer Paris Palmer, much maligned in these parts after last week's loss, looked much more comfortable in his second game. Was he perfect or dominating? Hardly, but the stage was not too big for him. Buffalo's defensive line is not Temple's, but for a player that PSU may be forced to rely on long term if Nelson is out, it was a needed first step.
2. I wrote above that we may not remember this game in a year or two, but we could very well remember it as Saquon Barkley's coming out party. I don't mean to anoint him as the savior or a future Heisman candidate, but the Penn State offense clearly got a spark from the freshman back. After the game, I commented on Twitter that PSU's offense just needed to relax and play, not think so much. Perhaps the naïveté of the young tailback is what this group needed.
3. I am optimistic by nature, and admittedly am looking for positives to take away from a rather ugly affair all around. Penn State's offense still has issues, and the questions and doubts about the coaches leading it are certainly justified. Three scoring drives against an out-manned Buffalo team did not cure the offense, but it was a step in the right direction, and hopefully can be followed up by a few more next weekend under the lights.