Penn State kicks off the 2018 season against the back-to-back Sun Belt champs in its first-ever meeting with Appalachian State.
(10) Penn State (0-0) vs. Appalachian State (0-0)
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College, PA
The Betting Line: Penn State -24
TV: BTN- Kevin Kugler (play-by-play), Matt Millen (analyst), Lisa Byington (sideline)
Weather: Pleasant temperatures in the mid-70s, but likely wet with showers expected early in the day that will turn into scattered thunderstorms throughout the afternoon and evening.
PENN STATE RECORD: 36-17, 5th Year
OVERALL RECORD: 60-32, 7th Year
VS. APPALACHIAN STATE: First Meeting
APPALACHIAN STATE RECORD: 41-22, 6th Year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting
NOW THE FUN PART....
APPALACHIAN STATE OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE
Appalachian State is looking for a way to replace four-year starter Taylor Lamb at quarterback, who was the Trace McSorley of the Sun Belt. Sophomore Zac Thomas will be looking to take the reigns, starting his first game at Beaver Stadium. The Mountaineers focus on running the ball, running the ball and running the ball some more, so don’t expect Thomas to put the ball in the air too much to start the game. Thomas has very limited experience, completing six of 10 passes for 33 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions in 2017. He did not have a pass attempt after week two. While not too much is known on him, he is a dual-threat quarterback who will see many designed runs on Saturday.
Fortunately for Thomas, he has some talent around him. Jalin Moore is a standout at running back, accumulating 2,439 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns the past two seasons despite battling through injuries for most of 2017. Moore isn’t used too often out of the backfield, but has the occasional big gain as a receiver. Marcus Williams Jr. is also a solid option to bring in fresh legs. As a freshman, he ran for 500 yards on 97 carries, with two 125-plus yard rushing games.
The Mountaineers top wideout is sophomore Thomas Hennigan, who caught 45 passes for 585 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. He will only get better, and will be a good first test for John Reid as Penn State’s top corner plays his first game since 2016. App State also welcomes not one, but two receivers who transferred from Kansas State in Corey Sutton and Dominique Heath, who will likely to play a large role in the offense.
As for Penn State’s defense, Jan Johnson is set to start at middle linebacker after an offseason of uncertainty at the position. His performance will be heavily scrutinized as he looks to permanently lock down the starting gig. He won’t be the only one, as Penn State returns just two starters on defense from 2017- Koa Farmer and Shareef Miller. However, many of the freshly-minted starters have plenty of experience, including defensive tackles Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor, cornerback Amani Oruwariye and safety Nick Scott.
Keep an eye out for Garrett Taylor, who beat out Lamont Wade for the starting spot at strong safety. Taylor has battled some injuries during his time at State College, but looks to be ready to shine on defense following his performance as a special teams ace this past season. And then there’s Micah Parsons, one of the top recruits for Penn State in recent memory, who will be seeing time at outside linebacker. Wearing the famed #11, Parsons has the freakish athletic ability to make the kind of plays that Lavar Arrington and NaVorro Bowman once did during their time in Happy Valley.
PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. APPALACHIAN STATE DEFENSE
The Trace McSorley Heisman campaign is set to officially begin. While McSorley has some familiar targets in Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins, he’ll be looking to get on the same page with several talented but inexperienced receivers in new starter KJ Hamler, as well as back-ups Mac Hippenhammer and true freshman Jahan Dotson, who both figure to play heavily in the passing game this season. Hamler and Dotson especially received the majority of buzz on offense throughout the offseason, and now have a chance to show the world what they can do.
McSorley will also be looking to get the new faces at tight end involved. Jonathan Holland is listed as the starter on the depth chart, but had just three receptions for 16 yards as Mike Gesicki’s back-up in 2017. True freshman Pat Freiermuth should see action as well, and has an outstanding opportunity to work his way up the depth chart. Freiermuth is a big target at 6-5, 260 lbs. and enters Penn State as a four-star prospect.
Perhaps the most intrigue for Penn State’s offense is the performance of the line, which looks to finally turn the corner. Each of the starters is at least a four-star with plenty of experience. If they can make good on potential and open up some running lanes, Penn State has the horses in the backfield to punish defenses. Miles Sanders is finally set to become the starter after sitting behind Saquon Barkley for two seasons. Sanders (along with true freshman Ricky Slade) was the top running backs in his class and showed flashes in limited opportunities. Now he can prove he’s ready to carry the load. He has the broad skillset to do it, with the ability to run between the tackles, bounce it outside, and catch the ball out of the backfield. Keep an eye out for senior Mark Allen, who could be a dangerous weapon as a third down back.
Appalachian State has hung its hat on playing tough defense, so this will be a good first test for the Nittany Lions. They are welcoming a new defensive coordinator in Bryan Brown, who was promoted from cornerbacks coach after former DC Nate Woody departed for Georgia Tech. The Mountaineers run a 3-4 and return five starters from a year ago.
The Mountaineers especially have a stellar secondary, and two starters in Clifton Duck and Tae Hayes who should end up on NFL rosters. Duck is a preseason All-American with 11 career interceptions and could provide an intriguing match-up with Juwan Johnson. Anthony Flory is a hard-nosed middle linebacker who would be right at home in the Big Ten. As a junior, Flory finished with 87 tackles and 3.5 TFLs to go along with a sack and interception. Myquon Stout is a space-eating nose tackle who demands attention and allows the linebackers to move around and make plays.
While it’s unknown exactly what changes Brown will bring to the defense, Appalachian State has done a solid job of applying pressure from different areas to keep the offense guessing.
True freshman Jake Pinegar is set to make his debut as the Nittany Lions starting placekicker, while fellow true freshman Rafael Checa has earned the kickoff specialist position. Special teams captain Blake Gillikin returns at punter, and looks to prove to be one of the nation’s very best in 2018. Gillikin not only has the leg to blast kicks that flip the field, but also possesses the control to regularly pin the offense inside its own five on shorter kicks.
Redshirt freshman receiver KJ Hamler has been named as the kick returner, and expect to see running backs Ricky Slade and Journey Brown get in on the action. All three have incredible speed and could be extremely dangerous return men. DeAndre Thompkins is back at punt returner, after an outstanding 2017 season in the return game.
The Mountaineers have a standout in kicker Chandler Stanton, who connected on eight of nine attempts with a long of 53 yards last season. He also was successful on all 31 extra point attempts. Sophomore Xavier Subotsch returns at punter after averaging just under 40 yards per punt with a long of 58 yards during his freshman season.
Penn State- 45, Appalachian State- 21
Let me start by saying that if this game were being played between 2013-2015, I would be awfully nervous. Appalachian State is a better program than most realize, and isn’t an automatic victory like a home opener against a Kent State or Georgia State. The Mountaineers are replacing plenty of talent from last season, but don’t be shocked if they are able to hang with the Nittany Lions for some time.
That’s basically what I’m expecting from this game. Appalachian State makes some plays and keeps it close for the first half, before Penn State breaks things open and creates some breathing room in the third quarter. This could be a beneficial outcome for the Nittany Lions should things work out this way, as it allows for the opportunity to make the inevitable adjustments that will be necessary with so many new faces getting acclimated to their new roles.
Miles Sanders runs angry after answering 43,852 questions about replacing Saquon Barkley, hitting the 100-yard mark on the ground with two touchdowns. McSorley looks like his usual self, spreading the ball out and getting new receivers Mac Hippenhamer, KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson involved with the offense. Hippenhamer surprises by leading the team in receptions for the afternoon, and Hamler shows off that speed on a 70-yard touchdown strike.
On defense, Yetur Gross-Matos gets off to a hot start with a two-sack performance, while Amani Oruwariye picks off a pass and Koa Farmer gets a key strip-sack to help the Nittany Lions pull away for good.