The moment we’d all been waiting for finally arrived. As the countdown got closer and closer to zero, the anticipation that had been killing us all for months grew stronger, and the expectations larger. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley were pegged as Heisman contenders. They, along with Mike Gesicki, were named preseason All-Americans. Many other Penn State players were nominated for a slew of preseason awards as well. Their ranking, sixth in the nation, is the highest they’ve had to start the season since 1999. There was no doubt that this Penn State team would need to come to play from day one.
Finally, we got to see what the Nittany Lions would bring to the field in 2017. The remnants of Hurricane Harvey* left their mark on the field, as conditions were wet and sloppy to start the game. Penn State didn’t mind. Opting to defer, we got to see the defense play first, and they quickly forced the Akron offense off the field. Early game jitters were visible on offense, with the first series ending in an interception. A near fumble-recovery later, the Lions were ready to get back on offense. Akron, backed inside its own 10-yard line, punted the ball out to the 50. A running into the kicker penalty gave the Zips an opportunity to atone for their bad punt, which they did. Unfortunately for them, however, DeAndre Thompkins also atoned for not fielding the original punt, and took the second try to the house. After that, the offense poured it on.
Focusing on the defense a while longer, it has to be said that they performed well above expectations in this first game of the season. They showed zero signs of rust, and save for a few plays, they punished Akron for every single decision. Throw the deep ball? Interception. Hand it off? Tackle for loss. In fact, Akron didn’t cross the 50-yard line in the entire first half. There seemingly was nothing Akron could do the defense wasn’t prepared to shut down. The laws of logic dictate that the defense will get better as the season goes, and, admittedly, this was Akron, but seeing the most concerning part of the team perform like this on the first game of the season can only be viewed as a positive.
Back to offense, it’s still just a bit concerning that Akron was able to get penetration as frequently as they did. McSorley had time to make decisions for the most part, and Saquon Barkley was able to find holes, but we still saw the same plays being blown up in the backfield, as both Barkley and McSorley had a few exchanges that went for loss. I’m not ready to sound the alarm yet, but it’s definitely something to look at. When the offensive line is able to open holes for Barkley, he can take it to to the house at any given point. Were it not for a controversial out of bounds call, he would have done just that in the second quarter. More of that, and less blown plays in the backfield, and Penn State will be alright.
I’m also not ready to sound the alarm on DaeSean Hamilton, who dropped a few passes that would have been touchdowns, but that’s also something to keep in mind as the season goes on. Juwan Johnson, on the other hand, more than made up the difference. His four receptions for 84 yards in the game exceeded his production for the entire year last season. Mike Gesicki, not to be forgotten, had a big game himself with two touchdown grabs. It’s still early, and the defenses are only going to get better as the season goes on, but the drop-off from Chris Godwin’s departure does not look as stark as some may have thought.
Not having to worry about a game going into the second half is a breath of fresh air; what a difference a year makes. Against Kent State last season, Penn State led by three, 16-13, and the offense was struggling. Today, the Nittany Lions had already covered the spread at halftime, and Akron didn’t cross the 50-yard line** until the game was well out of hand.
Penn State welcomes rival Pitt next Saturday, September 9, at 3:30 PM on ABC. Something tells me the players (and the coaches) have had this game circled for a long time.
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**Due to penalty.