A week ago Penn State lost a game it could have won due to self-inflicted mistakes that piled up to make the difference. This week the Lions made a similar number of mistakes but was able to escape with a seven-point victory versus the Owls. Were it not for a fumble deep inside Temple territory in the first half and a baffling interception early in the third quarter, the Lions would have coasted to an easy victory. Luckily to this point in the season the mistakes that the team is making are correctable.
Penn State averaged 1.64 yards per carry for the first 34 rushing attempts of the game. With just over seven minutes remaining and nursing a three point lead, Saquon Barkley took the 35th Penn State rushing attempt 55 yards to the end zone to provide the winning margin of victory. Barkley missed most of the game due to an injury he sustained on his first carry from scrimmage, which went for 8 yards. After the initial carry Barkley sat out most of the game until being reinserted late in the second half. He gained only 5 yards on 7 carries outside his first carry and the long touchdown, but that did not stop him from hitting the hole hard when the game was on the line.
Earlier in the game, while Barkley was being held out due to what appeared to be a lower-leg bruise, Mark Allen, Andre Robinson and Miles Sanders got their shot in the backfield. Allen gained 17 yards on six carries. Sanders got the first three carries of his college career. His second went for 19 yards and displayed the talent that the true freshman brings to the table. His third and final carry of the game resulted in a fumble deep in Owl territory, a play that allowed Temple to hang in the game longer than it otherwise would have been able. That play reminded us that the 5’11, 205 pound future-superstar out of Pittsburgh is still just a freshman, gaining experience and strength as he continues through the season.
It’s easy to second-guess a decision when a play results in a fumble. Penn State was leading 14-7 at the time Sanders fumbled on what looked to be a touchdown drive. The Lions scored touchdowns on the two previous possessions and on the possession following the fumble. Had the team been able to punch in four consecutive touchdowns the game would have been just about in hand for Penn State prior to halftime. The fumble came after Sanders gained 19 yards and it is easy to understand why he remained in the game to continue the drive. However, Andre Robinson seems much more prepared at this point to carry the ball in the red zone or short-yardage situations.
Robinson gained a solid 24 yards on 6 carries and showed the power that Penn State fans have been hearing about since the redshirt freshman joined the team. Robinson came into the game with just two carries on the season for four yards. At a generously listed 5’9 he is not big in terms of his vertical profile. However, at 216 pounds, the standout from Bishop McDevitt High School in Harrisburg, Pa. is not a small running back. He’s built like a tree, getting wider as you gaze downward, and has two trunk-like stumps for legs. Robinson is like a little house, one that was over-engineered and much more sturdy than required. He’s a brick treehouse, a ranch-style unit set on the ground using the trees for added stability. He should be getting the carries when tough yardage is needed and Saquon Barkley is not available.
On a day that saw Penn State gain more than 400 yards from scrimmage for the second consecutive week, facing a respectable defense, there were a few setbacks early. The Sanders fumble ended a promising drive but earlier in the same possession Trace McSorley fumbled a snap for a loss of 9 yards. It was the second such fumble of the game for McSorley and while each cost the team yardage, neither stalled a drive. With a 14 point lead early in the second half McSorley threw an interception on the first play of the drive. It allowed Temple to cut the lead to 7 points with just nine yards gained from scrimmage after being given the short field. Mistakes such as these are correctable, and expected, when a team is playing many underclassmen. Thankfully the team was able to win and learn from these experiences.
Late in the game another unfortunate and correctable mistake turned the momentum from squarely on the side of the Lions to up in the air. Leading by ten points and about to receive a punt with fewer than 13 minutes remaining in the game, Amani Oruwariye was struck by a rugby-style punt and the Owls recovered the ball on the Penn State one yard-line. Three plays later Temple punched it in for the score, cutting the lead to just three points with eight minutes left in the game.
Penn State fans were stunned momentarily but the feeling did not last for very long. Less than one minute later Saquon Barkley took the hand-off from McSorley and weaved his way through the Owl defense for the game-winning 55-yard touchdown run. The action had fans on each side resembling the mascot of the visiting team; heads were spinning and while it was a hoot to watch, most people in Happy Valley could have done without the late-game fireworks.
The willingness of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to stick with the run, although it had been stamped out for most of the day, paid off in the end. After three-dozen seemingly futile rushing attempts Barkley was able to break through the wall at the line of scrimmage and from there he was determined to take it to the house.
Penn State weathered multiple types of adversity and were still able to come out with a win. The second-team linebackers showed why Penn State is still Linebacker U. Shortly into the game, Nyeem Wartman-White was forced to leave with an injury. This left the Lions without all three starting linebackers, as Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda were unable to dress for the game. In stepped Manny Bowen, Jake Cooper, and Brandon Smith. The trio played very solidly, most notably a surprising performance by redshirt-junior Brandon Smith. Until this game it was uncertain if the Lions had a third option behind Cabinda and Wartman-White at middle linebacker. Smith gave the Lions an anchor in the middle and the rest of the linebacker group followed suit with a steady performance.
The presence of three lessor-known linebackers on the field for a much needed victory shows signs that the overall team depth has greatly improved over the past couple of seasons. Team captain Von Walker was used to provide linebacker depth a couple of years ago and is listed on the depth chart and was available to play. The fact that Walker was not used illustrates that the players around him have the talent that the team lacked in recent years. It is unlikely that Walker has not improved since seeing the field at linebacker, rather that those around him on the depth chart have finally matured to a position where they are able to perform at a higher level than the former walk-on. While it is hopeful that the three starters will be available for the trip to Ann Arbor next weekend and beyond, it is comforting to know that behind the starters are capable players. The fact that neither Walker nor the highly-touted freshman Cameron Brown were inserted shows that the linebacker group is at least eight players deep.
The defensive line played well. Parker Cothren looked a lot like former Penn State defensive lineman Scott Paxson out there, disrupting plays in the backfield with regularity. Following the Sanders fumble that put the Lion’s defense in a position where it needed a stop, Cothren had tackles for loss on first and third down, forcing the Owls to punt the ball away.
The offensive line played a steady game. After allowing ten sacks to Temple a year ago the Lions shut out the Owls this year, not allowing a sack. This helped McSorley on his way to completing 75% of his passes for 287 yards. On one play where the line allowed a man to get into his face, McSorley calmly stepped to his right, using his elusiveness to gain time, and fired a bomb to Mike Gesicki who made a great one-handed catch. The sophomore quarterback had a couple of fumbled snaps and an interception but overall continues to show why the team has such confidence in him as a leader.
It’s clear that the team may not be able to hang with Michigan if it continues to hinder itself with fumbles and interceptions. It may be true that the Lions, even with its best performance, will still come up short in Ann Arbor. However, unlike years past, the mistakes that we point to on Sunday morning are all correctable immediately. There were no unit-wide calamities as we’ve seen in the recent past, even with all three starting linebackers unable to play. There’s reason to believe that the team is ready to put forth its best performance next week in the first Big Ten game of the season.
Three Additional Thoughts
Gillikin’s Island- Blake Gillikin showed that he is not perfect. After an amazing start to the season, with 11 punts for an average of 47 yards per punt, Gillikin averaged 35 yards per kick on three punts. The yards per punt are misleading, as Gillikin’s three attempts came on Temple’s side of the field. His one imperfect punt was his longest, booting the ball 41 yards into the end zone, just barely, for a touchback. His first punt of the day traveled 30.5 yards from the 31 yard-line and was downed inside the one yard-line for Temple’s first possession. Gillikin’s third punt came under a great deal of pressure just prior to Temple’s final offensive possession. He got the punt off clean and the Owls were forced to fair catch the ball at the 15 yard-line. While Gillikin was not perfect today, he had the one touchback, his play was once again stellar. The most amazing part of Gillikin’s performance this year is the lack of return yards that he has allowed. After allowing just 3 return yards through two games, Gillikin shut out the Owls, not allowing a single return attempt.
When a player is standing on Gillikin’s Island the best he can hope for is to not fumble the ball. With three return yards allowed through 14 punts, opponents are gaining roughly the length of the football per kick. That’s not even getting out of the area that the defense must allow the return man to catch the punt. Facing Gillikin is like being marooned for three hours in a vessel smaller than a portable bathroom. Heading into Big Ten play, this will be a weapon that Penn State can use to its advantage.
Kicking Remains Solid- Not to be outdone by the freshman punter, Penn State’s tandem of kickers did a solid job. Joey Julius let his final kickoff sail out of bounds, a problem he had last season. That was the only kick that he has failed to keep on the playing field this season. His other six kickoffs versus the Owls were touchbacks. That’s pretty impressive for the former soccer star. On the season only 4 of his 21 kicks have been returned and at least one of those returns was probably a mistake. Tyler Davis has done everything that has been asked of him, converting all five field goal attempts and all of his extra point attempts. While the steady production on the field is a gift that the team was lacking last season it is also important to remember that Alex Barbir, the highly recruited freshman kicker, is waiting in the wings. If Julius and Davis continue to play well, Barbir will be able to redshirt this season, and that will extend the length of time before Penn State will be looking for a kicker.
John Reid Is Becoming a Game-Changer- The true-sophomore cornerback ended the game with an easy interception and had the presence of mind to down the ball. Reid was all over the field once again this week. Already on the season Reid has recorded a tackle for loss, a sack, a fumble recovery and an interception. This goes along with his 13 tackles, good for sixth on the team. Reid gained 32 yards on 5 punt returns on a day where the Owls did not have any return attempts, punt or kickoff.