Prior to the start of the game most Penn State fans would have been ecstatic with a twenty point victory versus Kent State. That was roughly the point spread heading into the game. Trace McSorely threw for 209 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 47 additional yards. Chris Godwin caught 7 passes for 67 yards. Saquon Barkley rushed for 105 yards on 22 carries. Mike Gesicki, a player that the coaching staff is looking to for a breakout season, grabbed three passes for a total of 49 yards and a touchdown. DaeSean Hamilton added a touchdown reception.
At face value the result of the game yesterday was relatively close to what had been expected. Yet during the game it felt as though Penn State was missing quite a few opportunities. It’s true, the team could have made a half-dozen catches totaling nearly 100 yards. Chris Godwin had a great game but even he could have came up with a couple of 50/50 balls that instead fell to the ground incomplete. McSorely had respectable production in his first start under center, running a new offense, but he could have made better decisions at times. There were points left out there that could have been gained by the Lions.
What we have to remember is that this was the first game of the season against a very respectable defense. Kent State returned almost the entire defensive unit that ranked No. 27 in total yards per game nationally last season. To keep that in perspective, Michigan State ranked just one spot ahead of Kent State last season in total yards per game allowed. Temple ranked No. 20 in total defense last season and this game, from Penn State’s offensive perspective, compares to that game favorably.
Last year in the opening game the Lions were shocked by the Temple Owls and their unheralded but stout defense. John Donovan’s offense had no answer for the Owl’s pressure and made little to no adjustments that worked after the second quarter. This year, facing a Kent State defense that allowed just 350.1 yards per game last season, the Lions gained 354 yards. Due to the fact that Kent State is not nationally known for its defense, it is easy to ‘ho hum’ the production that Penn State had on offense. That should not be the case. The offense handled what Kent State threw at them and still was able to make adjustments and gain positive yards.
The fact that Penn State’s offense missed a few reads in the option game, and was somewhat out of sorts on the receiving end, should be a positive takeaway from this game. As the season moves on those plays will be made and the production numbers will reflect that change. The offensive production was nearly double of that of the first game last season (354/183) and there is reason to believe that easy adjustments can be made.
On the defensive side, the Lions flipped the script from last season’s disappointing first game loss. Penn State sacked Kent State quarterbacks 7 times for -54 yards. Conversely, Kent State only got to Trace McSorley once. The calls for more turnovers caused by Brent Pry’s defensive unit were answered as the team grabbed two interceptions and a fumble recovery. As the game wore on and the defensive line pinned back its ears, the pass rush all but eliminated any chance of a Kent State comeback. The defensive line showed its depth with a healthy rotation of a half-dozen players, allowing the team to keep the pressure on throughout. Redshirt freshman defensive end Shareef Miller out of Philadelphia showed a first-step burst that is going to be a serious problem for opposing offenses in the future. The secondary got production from several young players. The linebackers played as advertised. It was a good performance for the young defense and new coordinator, allowing just 279 yards.
Three Random, Probably Useless Thoughts
1- Blake Gillikin played the best game for a Penn State punter in recent memory. If Gillikin played any other position than punter his stellar performance would have put him in Player of the Game territory. Each team punted six times; Penn State averaged 47 yards per punt, Kent State 41. That’s 36 extra yards of field position gained by the big toe of our true freshman punter. Compared to Penn State’s punting average over the past two seasons (38.6) Gillikin gained over 50 yards additional field position.
While it is logical to notice the absurd length of Gillikin’s kicks it is also evident that his trajectory is unique as well. The hang time on the long punts allowed the coverage to be right on top of the return man as the ball got there. Kent State gained just two net yards on punt returns. The angle of his dangle is probably the most overlooked achievement in this, his virgin performance, as he was able to direct the kicks to the best spot while still keeping it long and high for his team. Are we witnessing a punter who will leave early for the NFL?
2- Joe Julius is not going anywhere. Julius had a bunch of touchbacks on the day but his most noticeable play came on his shortest kick. On a ball that floated to just the two yard line, Julius ran down the field to make the tackle. What will stand out to many people is the ferocity of the hit. The poor little return man probably wasn’t ready for the 270 pound former soccer star to drop the hammer as he did. That is understandable. But what should not be overlooked is that Julius didn’t make the tackle after a long return. The tackle came at the 23 yard line. That’s not good coverage for a kicker, that’s just plain good coverage. As the game wore on it appeared that Kent State return man Kavious Price was more than content to take a knee in the end zone. Out of seven Penn State kickoffs only that one was returned. Price gained 22 yards and one serious headache on the day.
Add that to Tyler Davis’ perfect 2 for 2 performance on field goal attempts to go along with three extra points and it appears that Penn State has solidified the kicking game. Remember that highly-touted freshman kicker Alex Barbir is waiting in the wings if the performance in the kicking game lapses. It appears the special teams woes are in the past for the Lions.
3- Kent State, Pittsburgh, and Temple are perfect non-conference opponents for this young Penn State team. While the Golden Flashes came to Happy Valley with a woeful offense, the Lions faced a very respectable defensive team. The new Penn State offense, led by a young quarterback, did not face a patsy in its first match-up. Kent State will be one of the top five defenses that the Lions will face this season. It may be better for the young team to look a little worse than they are to start the season, rather than facing a porous defense, gaining easy yards and points, and coming away with the idea that they are better than they really are at this stage.
Looking forward the Panthers and Owls will have similar objectives as did Kent State. The teams will have to win with defense, they have no chance in a shootout with Penn State. That is perfect preparation for the Big Ten season, which will feature a bunch of stellar defensive units in the most challenging games. While Ohio State and Michigan have powerful offenses, the Lions will have no chance to win if it cannot score against the two staunch defenses. The three early-season games will allow the Lions to hone their skills against very firm defensive units.