I made the comment to a few people yesterday leading up to the game that I could not remember a Penn State football game with less all-around buzz. After a season opener, a home opener, and a prime time battle, 3:30 against San Diego State, a 1-2 west coast team coming off a loss to South Alabama the prior week was not exactly grabbing headlines. The first THON canning weekend of the year even sapped the always reliable student section of a touch of energy. The only thing missing was those lovely noon kickoffs.
Not surprisingly, things got off to a slow start, with both teams trading punts over the first three possessions, before Penn State finally put something of a drive together, but not without any drama. After converting their first first down of the day on a Christian Hackenberg-to-Chris Godwin pass, the following snap went through the junior quarterback's hands, ultimately leading to a 17 yard loss--that is, until a somewhat dubious late hit call on an Aztec defender. On the following play, Hackenberg had time and found sophomore receiver Saeed Blacknall down the sideline for 45 yards to the Aztec 7. PSU was dinged 15 yards for a chop block, though, setting up first and goal at the 22. Enter freshman sensation Saquon Barkley. Hackenberg found Barkley on a middle screen, and Barkley did the rest, bouncing off, and between tacklers for the first score of the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, the first of many special teams miscues would rear their ugly head, as Rashaad Penny took Joe Julius' kick 100 yards, tying the game up just 12 seconds after Penn State had taken the lead. Penn State would drive 53 and 72 yards on their next two possessions, but settle for field goals on each. However, on the first of those two drives, PSU was dealt their biggest injury blow of a day that saw several (more on that later). On a 21 yard around the left side, Barkley appeared to roll his ankle. Whatever the ailment, it would be the freshman tailback's final carry of the day, and noticeably sap the energy of the Lions offense.
Following the second of the two field goals, it took only three plays for the Aztecs to suddenly find themselves in the lead. On the first play from scrimmage, Penny would take a jet sweep around the left edge, and 55 yards down the sideline. Two plays later, SDSU quarterback Maxwell Smith picked out Mikah Holder in the back corner of the end zone on an impressive pass and catch, and the go ahead touchdown.
The sense of worry among PSU fans did not alleviate all that quickly either. On their next possession, the Lions would drive to the Aztec 38, but after failing to connect on a third and five, James Franklin elected to kick the 55 yard field goal, which of course was blocked. Panic level: Rising.
Save for the big gain on the jet sweep, Penn State's defense was solid throughout the game, and forced another three and out following the blocked kick, surrendering just two yards on those three plays. With Barkley remaining on the sideline, the offense remained stuck in neutral, and another Chris Gulla punt ended the possession after just three plays. The spark PSU so desperately needed came on that punt, with Lloyd Mills muffing the kick, and Godwin falling on the loose ball.
Four plays later, the Lions were in the end zone, and back in the lead, but down another tailback. On the series' third play, Akeel Lynch picked up three yards, but remained on the ground, with what appeared to be a potentially serious knee injury. On the following play, Hackenberg found third string back Mark Allen on a swing pass, and the redshirt freshman would find the end zone 13 yards later, putting Penn State up 20-14.
On the next play from scrimmage, Garrett Sickels forced a fumble, recovered by Anthony Zettel. 46 seconds later, PSU was suddenly up two scores, with 17 seconds remaining in the half. The touchdown again came on a Christian Hackenberg pass, finding Godwin across the middle, with the sophomore receiver doing the rest to punch it into the end zone.
The second half began with both teams trading punts, but the second swung the momentum back to the visitors. DeAndre Thompkins muffed the kick, handing the ball back to the Aztecs at the PSU 21. Donnel Pumphrey would eventually sneak across the line on third and goal from the 1, pulling his team within just one score.
With the offense struggling to find a rhythm without their top to tailbacks, it was the Nittany Lions defense that would ultimately put the game away. At the end of the third quarter, and into the fourth, it appeared SDSU was driving towards a potential go ahead touchdown, before senior defensive end Carl Nassib forced a strip sack of Smith. The "other" defensive tackle in PSU's dominant inside duo, Austin Johnson, picked up the loose ball, and rumbled 71 yards, untouched, putting PSU up 34-21. After another three and out for the Aztecs, PSU drove inside the ten, but would settle for Julius' third field goal of the day for the game's final margin.
Three Completed Unrelated, Probably Useless Thoughts
1. This was a weird game. If you look at the stats, Penn State absolutely dominated the game. Really, it was two special teams miscues, and a big play, that gave San Diego State their 21 points. Yet I do not think I'm alone in feeling a little underwhelmed with things. Perhaps that's due to the injuries not only to Barkley and Lynch, but also Jordan Lucas (did not play), Marcus Allen, and Evan Schwan. PSU also settled for two field goals inside the ten yard line. Put one or both of those in the end zone, and maybe things feel differently. I still do not feel like the Lions played all that poorly, just that there was more there.
2. Penn State's youth was on full display on the special teams unit over the last two weeks. We saw the natural talent a week ago against Rutgers, and the typical inconsistency you have with young players yesterday. Perhaps there was a little too much complacency after one of PSU's better special teams performances in years against Rutgers, or maybe it was just one of those days, but the kickoff return and muffed punt lead directly to 14 points. Against better teams, that can be the difference between winning and losing.
3. I feel compelled to give my very best to Anthony Zettel and his family after everything they have gone through in the last few weeks, and especially the last two days. I cannot imagine the emotions going through that young man's mind, and I think we all teared up a little at the sight of him going into the stands and hugging his mom and the rest of his family.