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Game Preview: (6)Penn State vs. Akron

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year....Penn State Football is back!

Maryland v Penn State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Penn State kicks off the 2017 with some #MACtion, as the team enters the season with its highest expectations in recent memory.

(6) Penn State (0-0) vs. Akron (0-0)

Kickoff: Noon, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State -31

TV: ABC- Mark Jones (play-by-play), Rod Gilmore (analyst), Quint Kesserich (sideline)

Weather: Cool, and probably downright chilly for a week one game, with highs at just 58 and showers expected on and off during the afternoon.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 25-15, 4th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 49-30, 7th Year

VS. AKRON: 1-0

Terry Bowden:

AKRON RECORD: 24-37-, 6th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 164-99-2 24th Year

VS. PENN STATE: 0-2

NOW THE FUN PART....

AKRON OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

The Zips offense is led by quarterback Thomas Woodson, who is returning for his senior season following a promising junior year. Woodson has the capabilities of a dual-threat quarterback, but mainly developed into a pocket passer a year ago. In eight games of action, Woodson completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 2,079 yards, with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. While he can hurt a defense with his legs, he typically only scrambles as a last resort.

Woodson loses his top two targets in Jerome Lane, who accumulated 1,018 receiving yards in 2016, as well as Jojo Natson, who is gone after compiling 837 yards and 10 touchdowns last fall. Senior Austin Wolf will look to help replace these two. He is a large target who can stretch the field and cause mismatches with his 6’3’’, 210 lb. frame. Former quarterback-turned-receiver Tra’Von Chapman is an exceptionally gifted athlete, who could become quite the playmaker if he catches on to his new position. Expect the Zips to try to get the ball in Chapman’s hands as much as possible on Saturday.

The Zips do return their top two running backs, who shared the load in 2016. Senior Van Edwards is a powerful runner who accumulated 492 yards with eight catches for 81 yards. Fellow senior Manny Morgan chipped in 417 yards with a 5.1 yards per carry average. However, former Ohio State running back Warren Ball could be the most prominent Zips running back on Saturday if healthy. The senior is listed as probable, and was off to an outstanding start in 2016 before suffering a season-ending injury in week two against Wisconsin. Before coming out of the game, Ball had 71 yards on seven carries against one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.

As far as Penn State’s defense, the biggest item of interest should be the defensive end unit. The Nittany Lions are replacing both starters from 2016, but return a slew of young players with incredible potential. Starters Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller could become breakout stars, with Shame Simmons, Shaka Toney and Ryan Buchholz all expected to be major contributors in reserve roles. Keep an eye out for two true freshman in the secondary- Lamont Wade and Tariq Catro-Fields, who both figure to play prominent roles on defense this season.

AKRON DEFENSE VS. PENN STATE OFFENSE

Akron’s defense is led by coordinator Chuck Amato, who you may recognize as the former coach of NC State. His philosophy is simple yet effective- shut down the run and good things will happen. The Zips were actually second nationally in rushing defense in 2015, but took a step back last season after a slew of injuries. With a healthy group returning, Akron has a great opportunity to shut down the run this season- but probably not on Saturday against the nation’s best running back.

The Zips return MAC Defensive Player of the Year in Ulysees Gilbert III, who is a force from sideline-to-sideline. He is coming off an incredibly productive season with 122 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, four sacks and two forced fumbles.

When Penn State has the ball, here are a few things to keep an eye on to gain a better understanding of the offense this season:

-the progress of the offensive line. Now that the OL has depth, talent and experience, they can finally become a strength after years of poor performances. Pay extra attention to run blocking, which needs to improve from 2016.

-the emergence of a leading receiver. In the past, it was quite obvious from the start of week one that Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin had emerged as the go-to receivers. Who will be ready to carry the torch following Godwin’s departure?

-the overall fluidity of the offense. Penn State’s offense came a long way in a short time as the 2016 season progressed. Now in year two of Joe Moorhead’s system, the offense can really be a force from the very beginning.

-Saquon Barkley. Any fan of the game should stop what they are doing and watch Barkley whenever he steps foot on the field. He’s just that good.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Penn State returns its kicker and punter, who are both coming off outstanding seasons. Sophomore Blake Gillkin finally brought stability back to the punter position, averaging 42.8 yards per punt and regularly booming kicks to flip field position. Senior Tyler Davis is among the nation’s best kickers after connecting on 22 of 24 field goals (both misses were blocked) and nailing all 62 extra point attempts. Davis will also take over kickoff duties following Joey Julius departure from the team.

Miles Sanders and Brandon Polk look to be the primary kick returners. Sanders came oh-so-close to breaking a few returns last year, and should help the offense start off with excellent field position on a regular basis. DeAndre Thompkins is listed as the top punt returner. Thompkins showed tremendous ability as a return man, but was hindered by ball control issues- something that is likely in the past with his reemergence on the depth chart.

Penn State’s roster is littered with speed thanks to the last few recruiting classes. Keep your roster handy as you should see plenty of new faces helping out with special teams duties on Saturday.

Akron kicker returns after hitting 10 of 11 field goals with a long of 46 yards. They will be breaking in a new punter, which could be interesting. Edwards Jr. is also the team’s primary return man, and proved to be a weapon in the open field.

PREDICTION

Penn State- 49 Akron- 13

Akron isn’t a terrible team by any stretch. Head coach Terry Bowden has done a marvelous job of picking up the pieces after taking over a program in horrendous shape and has built them into a respectable MAC squad. If not for the injury bug, the Zips would have gone bowling and perhaps competed for a division title a year ago. If Penn State was fielding a team that was still strapped by sanctions, I’d even be somewhat nervous about an upset.

But this Penn State team is a different beast. There is too much talent throughout the depth chart to allow the Zips to hang in very long. As long as the defense doesn’t allow big plays early in the game, Penn State should be able to jump out to an early lead and not look back. If all goes well, the starters can get some rest and the younger guys will get some much-needed experience.

Saquon Barkley rushes for 150 yards and two touchdowns before exiting the game, allowing for a second running back to also reach the century mark. Mark Allen also gets in on the action with a long touchdown run that leaves many Zips defenders in the dust. On defense, Torrence Brown gets two sacks on the day while Koa Farmer forces a fumble that is returned for a touchdown.