The first game of the season went as planned for coach James Franklin and Penn State football. The team was able to take the lead early and never looked back. The defense played great, keeping Akron off the board and on its own side of the field until the final drive of the contest. One of the more interesting points of the game was watching as young players made their first significant contributions on the field for the Lions.
On the first drive of the day Akron was able to gain one first down and a total of 12 yards before it was forced to punt the ball away. DeAndre Thompkins had a nice nine-yard punt return to start the opening drive of the season for the dangerous Penn State offense.
Led by quarterback Trace McSorley, Penn State gained 61 yards down to the Akron 11 yard-line. On the drive McSorley accounted for all four first downs, two by air and one with his feet, while Saquon Barkley did not touch the ball. The drive ended when Zach Guiser came over from his safety spot to intercept a pass that otherwise would have gone for the first touchdown of the game.
On the second Akron offensive drive the first wave of defensive substitutions for the Lions took the field. On third and long Kevin Givens entered at defensive tackle for starter Parker Cothren, giving the Lions additional pass rush up the middle. Ryan Buchholz rotated in at defensive end for starter Shareef Miller. Buchholz forced a fumble on third down and Torrence Brown nearly recovered the loose ball. Akron punted the ball away. On the punt, Cam Brown was called for running into the kicker and the Zips elected to kick the ball again. That was probably not the best decision. DeAndre Thompkins took the next punt back 61 yards for the first score of the game.
The substitutions on defense continued for the Lions and fans were able to see many players on the depth chart whose arrival has been anticipated for years.
Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens were at defensive tackle for the next series, with Colin Castanga and Buchholz at end for PSU. Shane Simmons, the 6’3” 250-pound athletic redshirt freshman defensive end made his Penn State debut on third down. Simmons didn’t make it to the quarterback, but No.34 on the left edge showed his speed around the corner on his first play from scrimmage. Amani Oruwariye ended the drive with an athletic interception, high-pointing the ball as though he was the intended receiver on the play.
While the Lions were rotating in large numbers of defensive lineman, over ten different players saw the field during the half, productivity did not drop off.
With almost ten minutes off the game clock Saquon Barkley got his first carry of the game, good for 8 yards. He added runs of 4 and 10 and also a catch and nice run for 13 yards. The drive ended with a Mike Gesicki touchdown catch and a 14-0 lead for PSU. On the touchdown the offensive line allowed McSorley time to hold the ball for Gesicki to put a double move on the Akron safety. The play-side safety bit momentarily on the pump fake to the outside receiver. At first glance, it appears that the defensive ends were able to get penetration into the backfield. That was by design, as the play was meant for McSorley to step up, as he did, into the safety of the pocket that his young line created for him.
Yetur Gross-Matos, the 6’5” 248-pound freshman defensive end made his debut for the Lions on the next Akron possession. Lamont Wade saw the field for the first time on third down as the nickel back. Nick Scott entered at safety and Brandon Smith gave Jason Cabinda a breather at middle linebacker. While the starters may be set at certain positions, the key backups were able to show that they are ready to step up and are able to perform at a high level.
Penn State was able to force another punt. This time DeAndre Thompkins took a 42-yard punt back the other way 42 yards. With great field position, starting at the Akron 39, coach Franklin’s team was not able to capitalize. Following a play in the end zone that wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton was not able to convert for a touchdown, Tyler Davis missed a 39-yard field goal attempt.
The starters were back on the field and the defensive line continued to rotate on the next Akron possession. Colin Castagna got pressure on Zips quarterback Thomas Woodson on third down, forcing an errant throw and then a punt on fourth down. Prior to the start of the season, Castagna’s name appeared on the depth chart above other players that were more highly recruited. It is apparent that the junior out of Barrington, Illinois has earned his place in the rotation with a tremendous amount of work in the off-season. Moving forward if Castagna is on the field it should be assumed that he has earned the spot over many talented players that have received much more attention.
Saquon Barkley ran for 80 yards on the next play from scrimmage. The play initially was called an 87-yard touchdown run but on review it was ruled that Barkley stepped out of bounds short of the end zone. Penn State right tackle Chasz Wright pulled across the formation and found Ulysees Gilbert III, a 225-pound linebacker, in the hole. Wright swallowed Gilbert III, the returning MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Watch No.77, known as Big Bacon, make a linebacker disappear. Left guard Steven Gonzalez was also very rude to the Akron right defensive tackle, riding him several yards from the hole.
McSorley took the ball into the end zone on a 4-yard touchdown run two plays later.
Ayron Monroe entered the game at safety on the next drive, which ended after three plays and no yards gained for the Zips. The top four safeties on Penn State’s depth chart saw the field early in the game, showing the talent at the once-thin position.
The next drive for the Lions went for a touchdown after five plays and 62 yards. Saquon Barkley followed blocks from both guards on the play to easily walk into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown. Mammoth offensive guard Steven Gonzalez, the 6’4” 341-pound redshirt sophomore, was first to greet Ulysees Gilbert III. Right behind him was Brandon Mahon, who came to finish the job. Credit also goes to both play-side wide receivers; DaeSean Hamilton in the slot and Saeed Blacknall outside. Hamilton and Blacknall have made plenty of clutch catches in their time at Penn State but their blocking is admirable as well.
Penn State added another touchdown during a two-minute drill, a 30-yard run by Saquon Barkley with just 23 seconds left on the clock. Notice No.10 Brandon Polk in the left slot. The speedy wide receiver blocked his target and disrupted the angle of a second defender, effectively taking two Zips out of the play. The game went to halftime with the outcome no longer in doubt, 35-0 PSU.
PSU came out with its starters on both sides of the ball to start the second half. Saquon Barkley fielded the opening kickoff return, a decision that had many fans squirming in their seats. While it is likely that the coaching staff wanted to get Barkley a live repetition in game action at the kick returner position, the increased chance of injury is a risk that many armchair coaches would have elected not to take. Akron was able to get a stop on the series. The Penn State defense answered with a 3 and out.
On the next drive Trace McSorley was joined in the backfield by Tommy Stevens. The backup quarterback was used as a decoy on a McSorley run on the first play, then caught a pass coming out of the backfield on the second play. Coach Franklin showed a new wrinkle in the offense that will cause next week’s opponent, the Pittsburgh Panthers, to spend time discussing in practice. Tyler Davis hit a 47-yard field goal to cap the drive, the longest kick of his career.
The starters remained in the game on offense for Penn State on the next series and McSorley hit Saquon Barkley on a wheel route that went for 43 yards. The drive ended when McSorley found Mike Gesicki in the end zone for the second time on the day.
The end of the third quarter signaled the end of the game for many of the Lions’ starters. During an Akron punt, Robert Windsor was called for a personal foul, jumping over two players, which is no longer allowed due to an off-season rule change. This gave the Zips a first down, and as a result Akron ran a play on the Penn State side of the field for the first time in the game. The momentum didn’t last long as Akron was penalized 15 yards for a chop block, then five more before snapping the ball on the next play. PSU got a tackle for a loss on the following play, pushing the Zips back to their own 43 where they lost three more yards on third down, back inside their 40 yard-line. Officially the team did not run a play on Penn State’s side of the field until the final drive of the game, as time was running out.
McSorley remained at quarterback, his final play of the game, to open the next drive. With Tommy Stevens in the lineup again, McSorley gave the ball to the backup quarterback on a jet sweep and Stevens then passed the ball to DaeSean Hamilton for a first down. Considering both McSorley and Stevens’ ability to run the ball, having two quarterbacks in the game presents a very tricky challenge for defenses.
It’s intriguing to think about the possibilities that having both McSorley and Stevens on the field at the same time presents. There are all sorts of trick or misdirection plays, of course, but even straight-forward plays could prove to be a headache for opposing teams. Not only can Stevens and McSorley pass and run effectively but their styles are slightly different, posing additional challenges. McSorley is tough, but his running style is more efficient and evasive. Stevens runs with the style of a runaway bulldozer; always moving downhill, unafraid to initiate contact, plowing over any defender that takes him lightly.
McSorley went to the sideline after the play and Stevens remained in as the signal caller. Stevens led a four-play scoring drive from there, finishing it himself with a five-yard touchdown run. Steven Gonzalez pulled from his left guard position, fitting his 341-pound frame between the right guard and right tackle, leading the way through the hole for Stevens. Gonzalez even helped Stevens to his feet after the play.
Will Fries entered the game at left tackle for the drive. Gonzalez remained at left guard. Zach Simpson made his first appearance at center. Michal Menet made his debut at right guard and Chasz Wright was at right tackle.
It is nice to get game repetitions for the backup quarterback, as Stevens was able on Saturday. It is also important to get key offensive line reserves such as Fries, Menet and Simpson time to adjust to the speed of the game, and to have film for the coaches to use to help the young players improve.
There is little that Penn State did not do well versus the Zips. Many reserve players got much needed experience. The offense looked crisp. The defense appears to be deeper than it has been in years. The team is ready to take on the next name on the schedule, the Pittsburgh Panthers.