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The Morning After: A Deep Sigh Of Relief For Penn State Football

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You’re never as good as you looked when you win big. You’re not as bad as it looks when you lose big. An overtime win, well, what you see is what you get.

NCAA Football: Appalachian State at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

An unexpected early-season loss can be deflating to a fan base and can throw a team into a tailspin from which it is hard to recover. Thoughts of such scenarios were running through the head of many Penn State fans until well past 7 p.m. on Saturday night.

The game was supposed to be in hand for the No. 10 Nittany Lions sometime shortly after half-time, or so we thought.

Trace McSorley led a brisk, 7 play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game and season for James Franklin’s squad. Things were going just as planned up to the time when kickoff specialist Rafeal Checa’s toe hit the ball and propelled it, end over end, toward the Appalachian State returner, Darrynton Evans. Twenty seconds later Evans had gone end zone to end zone for a 100-yard return that silenced the crowd inside of Beaver Stadium, if only for the moment.

The Lions were unable to answer and following a Blake Gillikin punt, Appalachian State held the ball for 6:37 in game time. The drive, which contained four first downs, flamed out at the Penn State 21 and the Mountaineers settled for a go-ahead field goal and 10-7 lead.

It took nearly two quarters of football, midway through the third quarter, for Appalachian State to put together another four total first downs. Brent Pry’s defense stiffened in the first quarter and it appeared that it had righted the ship on the earlier shaky play. Rickey Rahne’s offense came alive with fourteen points in the third quarter, and heading into the fourth, the Lions led 24-10.

Fans were just beginning to settle in when with 13:39 remaining in the game, the lead was cut in half by the Mountaineers. Capping off another long drive with a touchdown, this time ten plays for 75 yards, there was work to do for Penn State. Two minutes later Miles Sanders ran in from two yards out to bring the lead back to 14 points with 11:17 to play.

All the Lions needed at that point was a stop on defense.

That stop and Appalachian State’s wide receivers eluded the Penn State defense for two consecutive drives, as quarterback Zac Thomas led a comeback to tie the game with 6:03 on the clock. Thomas finished the game with 270 yards passing and 43 yards on the ground and his resilience was reminiscent of the play that we are used to seeing from Penn State’s three-year starter McSorley.

The Lions punted, forced a punt, and then were pinned inside the ten yard-line with three minutes to play. Blake Gillikin was only able to gain 36 yards on a the critical punt and the Mountaineers were set up for a potential game-winning drive at the Penn State 42.

Four consecutive plays which saw the Mountaineers gain 8, 10, 8, and 16 yards later and the score was 38-31 in favor of the visiting team that came into the game more than a three-touchdown underdog.

The kickoff went well into the end zone to KJ Hamler, who thought about whether to return the ball or stay in the end zone while players ran toward him. Hamler chose to take the ball out and went across midfield with it, to the Appalachian State 48 yard line. The kickoff return breathed life back into the lungs of the Penn State fans inside of Beaver Stadium.

With 1:39 on the clock and two timeouts at his disposal, it had the feeling the Trace McSorley was about to lead his team, once again, to a late game victory. It wasn’t easy.

Brandon Polk caught a ten-yard pass on fourth and two to extend the drive.

Juwan Johnson took a short pass and ran fourteen yards with it, getting out of bounds to preserve time. Two plays later KJ Hamler finished the drive that he started with the long return, when he caught a 15-yard touchdown to tie the game with 42 seconds to play.

The Mountaineers were not finished. Zac Thomas hit Corey Sutton for a thirty-yard catch to nearly bring his team to within field goal range at the Penn State 45 on the first play of the next drive. A few plays later a field goal from 56 yards out missed wide right but appeared to have the distance. After trying to gain yardage on first down with 15 seconds on the clock, Trace McSorley took a knee and the teams went to overtime.

Miles Sanders got the ball four times in a row and made it into the end zone from four yards out to give the Lions a 45-38 lead after the first possession in overtime. It was clear toward the end of the game that the Appalachian State defense was tired, though it had given an admirable effort for the entire game.

The Penn State defense stepped up to put an end to the drive and game when Amani Oruwariye got the interception in the back of the end zone.

Oruwariye had an eventful day, recording an interception, a forced fumble, and 7 solo tackles. He and the other cornerbacks struggled at times for Penn State on the day, most of the time it was a matter of positioning. On the final play, Oruwariye stuck with his man like a cheap suit, maintaining position behind the receiver to allow safety Garrett Taylor to provide help inside and deep. A couple of times earlier in the day the corners were caught slightly behind their guy, which made it impossible for the safety to provide help over the top and cut off certain angles inside.

Notes

  • Penn State continued to use more than just the starters late into the game. Ellis Brooks was in at middle linebacker during the final full drive of regulation when the Lions were trying to hold the 31-31 tie. Later, in overtime, Jan Johnson was in at middle linebacker.
  • There were a few completions against the outside of the Penn State defense that could have gone either way. John Reid, Amani Oruwariye, and Tariq Castro-Fields were running step for step with players that made big plays. While it would be nice to see the ball end up in friendly hands or fall incomplete, sometimes the opposing team makes a good play. A few of the plays that went in favor of the Mountaineers will go for the Lions as the season goes on. Tip your hat to the other team when they make a play.
  • Last year when James Franklin was asked what it was like to defeat Pittsburgh, his reply was that it was just like beating Akron, who the Lions handled 52-0 a week earlier. Should Penn State win next week in regulation against the Panthers, he may say that the win was not quite as special as the win versus Appalachian State. Considering the first four opponents of the season for the Lions; App State, Pitt, Kent State, and Illinois, the Lions may have just played the toughest game of the four. Don’t be mad, Pittsburgh, be better.