Saturday’s thrilling 45-38 overtime win over Appalachian State left Penn State fans with more questions than answers.
The Nittany Lions, who replaced a number of key cogs in both the starting lineup and the coaching staff in the offseason, sputtered both offensively and defensively against a very game Mountaineers squad.
Heisman candidate Trace McSorley looks hesitant early on, but eventually found his footing to lead his team to victory. Miles Sanders, trying to replace Saquon Barkley. ran for 91 yards and 2 touchdowns on 19 carries in an admirable showing. And the Nittany Lions offense, though slow to get started, put up 38 points in regulation.
The defense, meanwhile, operated in a seemingly inversely proportional manner to the offense.
Brent Pry’s unit, facing a ton of personnel turnover, was fairly fantastic in the first half, holding the Mountaineers to just three offensive points.
In fact, the Nittany Lions defense allowed just three points through three quarters. And then things went awry.
Appalachian State sophomore quarterback Zac Thomas feasted on Pry’s unit in the fourth quarter to the tune of 28 points and over 200 yards.
So, panic time?
Not quite yet.
While the process wasn’t pretty, the result was what mattered at the end of the day. And, as hard as it is to believe, Penn State did end the day 1-0.
Are there areas where James Franklin and Co. will have to do some hard work?
Offensively the Nittany Lions appeared to be fine following a slow start. Michal Menet made his first start at center and Connor McGovern was back at guard for the first time since his freshman year. Both players can be reasonably expected to improve with more time.
Wide receivers KJ Hamler and Juwan Johnson seemed to grow into the game, though the latter will be expected to be more consistent in future weeks.
Noticeably absent was DeAndre Thompkins, who is generally a known quantity for Nittany Lions fans and shouldn’t be criticized too harshly after one poor showing.
Defensively, the issues are abundant, though fixable.
Up front, Sean Spencer was without two key pieces in Kevin Givens (suspension) and Shane Simmons (injury). While the return of those two won’t cure all ills, it will allow Spencer to rotate his defensive lineman more often in hopes of keeping them fresh throughout the game.
The linebacking corps, as expected, was up and down.
Cam Brown appears to have made a big jump from his sophomore to junior season and was comfortably the best of the bunch yesterday. Jan Johnson and Koa Farmer started alongside Brown, though they will have to improve their play to keep freshmen Ellis Brooks and Micah Parsons off the field.
Brooks, a redshirt freshman, filled in well for Johnson when Brent Pry rotated him in and appeared to be a step quicker than the aforementioned Johnson.
Parsons, a highly touted true freshman, fit the billing on Saturday. Though his special teams mistake helped to cost the Nittany Lions seven points on their opening kickoff, his impact was felt immediately on defense. The Harrisburg product flies to the ball and is not afraid to go flying into a tackle, something Penn State struggled to do on Saturday.
Perhaps the biggest area of concern came in the secondary.
Before making his game-winning interception, senior Amani Oruwariye struggled mightily to deal with the Appalachian State wide receivers. Oruwariye has, however, proven much like Thompkins to be a known quantity and it would be silly to right him off so quickly.
Opposite Oruwariye was John Reid.
Reid, making his return from a torn ACL, looked the part of a player in his first game in 21 months. The good news, however, is that Reid appeared every bit as quick as he was pre-injury and can be reasonably expected to improve as the season progresses.
Where Pry does have some is with the safeties.
Tim Banks’ unit was all over the field on Saturday, and not in a good way.
Whether it was Nick Scott, Garrett Taylor or Lamont Wade, the safeties regularly failed to get over the top in time to help Oruwariye, Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields.
While Scott and Taylor did combine for 17 tackles, it’s never a good sign when you deepest secondary players are second and third on the team in tackling.
So yes, there are clear areas of concern for both coaches and fans alike.
Penn State will have to clean up a number of areas in the coming weeks or a potential dream season could easily become a nightmare.
But there are reasons for optimism as well.
Many of the Nittany Lions mistakes are fixable and maybe even easily so.
It’s also not out of the question that Penn State just played its best non-conference opponent before welcoming Ohio State to Beaver Stadium on Sep. 29.
Cause for concern? Sure.
Time to panic? Not yet.