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76 Random Thoughts on Appalachian State

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Random musings on a near catastrophe in Week 1

Appalachian State v Penn State Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State Nittany Lions squared off against the Appalachian State Mountaineers in a contest of American football at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. After a terrifying fourth quarter gave way to free football in a single overtime, Penn State emerged victorious, 45-38. I have some thoughts, which are set forth randomly below:

  1. Listen, this column was supposed to be easy this week. Then App State came to town.
  2. Credit where credit is due - App State has earned its rep as a giant killer, and there’s no better kind of giant to kill than one with a top 10 ranking in front of of 100,000 plus people.
  3. Also credit where credit is due - Penn Staters showed up for this game.
  4. Last year in this space, I was critical of the crowd. After all, Penn State closed out the 2016 season ranked 7th, opened 2017 ranked 6th, and featured a team with numerous bona fide superstars - Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, and Mike Gesicki, to name a few.
  5. Despite the hype, attendance for the 2017 opener against Akron was weak - 101,684.
  6. Even taking the whole Michigan 2007 fiasco into account, I’d wager that most Penn Staters didn’t really consider Appalachian State to be anything better than Akron - a/k/a your run of the mill sacrificial lamb.
  7. Apparently consecutive top ten finishes and consecutive preseason top ten rankings create more hype than a single season. Saturday’s opening day attendance? 105,232.
  8. Penn State needed every single one of those fans.
  9. Of course, Appalachian State is anything but your run of the mill sacrificial lamb. It’s certainly better than Akron, Kent State, or plenty of other squads Penn State pays to play during Week 1.
  10. Case in point - preseason S&P+ rankings have Akron at 118 and App State at 59.
  11. (In case you were wondering, Pitt was 50th. Penn State was 7th)
  12. The Mountaineers also received 16 points worth of votes in the Coaches Poll, putting them 39th in the country.
  13. Whatever the case may be, no one realistically expected App State to be any real risk to the Nittany Lions for longer than a half. Penn State is deeper and, based on recruiting, vastly more talented. It also returned a star senior quarterback and a well regarded defensive coordinator. Overall, this looked like it would be a game that was close for a minute until it wasn’t.
  14. Casual fans didn’t regard App State as anything more than Akron, but admittedly, it’s not like college football writers were any better.
  15. Take us for example. Here are the scores your faithful contributors predicted on Friday: 40-17, 42-21, 34-20, 45-21, 45-17, 42-17, 31-14, 41-17 (me), 42-21, 34-17, 38-24, and 45-21.
  16. Even those of us who professed to showing mild concern predicted a double digit win. For my part, I figured that Penn State would start fast, App State would be within striking distance at the half, and then Penn State’s talent advantage would win out and the 4th quarter would see plenty of time for the reserves.
  17. To be fair, I was feeling pretty good about that after at the end of the third quarter.
  18. Then all hell broke loose.
  19. I’ve heard some discussion that “coaching” was the problem on Saturday, or that Penn State got “outcoached” by the App State staff. I just don’t see that being the case.
  20. In fact, I think the only person that was taking the App State threat seriously was James Franklin, who mentioned their games against Michigan, Tennessee, and Georgia in basically every media availability he had for weeks. I’d assume the rest of the staff took it as seriously, but I honestly haven’t heard them speak enough to comment.
  21. I thought Franklin did a nice job with clock management on Saturday.
  22. I also thought the offensive play calling was fine, and the statistics bear that out.
  23. I can’t speak to the defense. It might have been good, but they had a hard time getting to Zac Thomas on Saturday, who managed to look like Brian Lewerke last November, who looked like JT Barrett last October, who looked like Sam Darnold on January 2, 2017.
  24. Time will tell how good Thomas actually is, but if Saturday is any indication, he’s going to be the kind of quarterback that can put App State squarely in the race for the automatic G5 qualifier.
  25. Of course, Saturday might not be any indication at all. That’s part of the problem with extrapolating from Week 1.
  26. For instance, in 2009, Iowa faced off against Northern Iowa. It took two blocked kicks for the Hawkeyes to squeak by with a 1 point win, 17-16.
  27. Most of us scoffed at the Hawkeyes for that performance. Beaver Stadium was filled with blue and white clad Northern Iowa fans that day. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions, then-ranked 9th in the country and coming off a Big Ten title in 2008, beat Akron handily, 31-7.
  28. There was less scoffing 3 weeks later when Iowa walked into a Beaver Stadium white out and held Penn State to 10 points (and just 3 over the final 58:15).
  29. The Hawkeyes went 11-2, won the Orange Bowl, and finished 7th in the AP Poll. It was, by all accounts, an excellent year.
  30. That’s looking back on it now. I’m sure if you had asked an Iowa fan how they felt when they woke up on Sunday, September 6th, they would have told you that team was destined to go 7-5 and was going to get trounced by Penn State.
  31. Weird how these things work, right?
  32. I’m not sure that makes you feel any better. Know why? Because I’m not sure it makes me feel any better either.
  33. I’ve been sounding the alarm for months about my concerns over the significant production losses we saw post-Fiesta Bowl. Not just Barkley and Gesicki, but DaeSean Hamilton, Jason Cabinda, Parker Cothren, Curtis Cothran, Marcus Allen, Troy Apke, Grant Haley, and Christian Campbell.
  34. From my vantage point, the guys behind most of those guys (save Miles Sanders, who we’ll get to in a minute) are exactly fine, but the future stars are the true and redshirt freshmen who have literally zero game experience but plenty of the “it” factor to go around in spades.
  35. I was mostly pleased with the way the offense managed those losses, and I think Ricky Rahne will be an acceptable replacement for the departed Joe Moorhead.
  36. By the way, congratulations are in order for Coach Moorhead, whose Mississippi State Bulldogs pounded Stephen F. Austin 66-3 despite starting the backup quarterback. A nice start in Starkville for him.
  37. But back to the lecture at hand. The offense scored 38 points in regulation and 45 overall. That’s pretty good, and at least our predictions had that side of the ball right.
  38. Points weren’t the sole indicator of success here. For a team that has struggled with negative plays even with a point machine offense, Penn State gave up exactly two negative rushes all day and Trace McSorley was sacked a grand total of one time.
  39. The offensive line had their share of problems handling App State’s blitzes, but by and large I felt this line was vastly improved from the last several years. As someone in the comments this weekend pointed out, they aren’t the Hogs, but we shouldn’t expect them to be. We should expect them to be solid at the point of attack and help our outstanding skill talent generate positive yardage.
  40. The line held their own, but Miles Sanders made everyone look good. Including himself.
  41. Sanders was the top running back in the country as a senior, but you wouldn’t have known that given his production the last two years. That he was finally able to step out of the Barkley shadow this week in the way he did is a credit to the work he’s done behind the scenes to make himself better.
  42. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed watching him run. He pushed piles, got positive yards when nothing was there, used his speed to get to the outside, and made something bigger out of something small by making the first and second defenders miss routinely.
  43. Sanders was playing so well that I found it frustrating that Mark Allen (a personal favorite) and Ricky Slade (who looked like he had been shot out of a cannon on his touchdown run) played as much as they did.
  44. I understand the need to spell Miles every now and then, but all you need to do is watch our overtime drive again to realize how valuable Sanders is. 4 plays, 25 yards and a touchdown. Every single play was a handoff to number 24. In fact, but for a missed block by DeAndre Thompkins, it’s a 3 play, 25 yard touchdown drive.
  45. Sanders is going to be one of our two best offensive players this year. He needs to be on the field as much as possible.
  46. Mark Allen played well. Here’s the thing about him - he’s a very solid back. Always gains positive yards, has the speed and shiftiness to make a big play, and is a very good receiver. He could play almost anywhere.
  47. The problem for him is that Sanders is superior in every facet of the game and Slade has the kind of physical gifts that will make him a star before long.
  48. Allen would be excellent in a situation where you have a bigger back who needs to be spelled on 3rd and medium/long situations. Penn State doesn’t have that, though. Every one of the guys on the depth chart is all-purpose by design, so Allen’s skill set is duplicative of everyone else’s.
  49. Speaking of that missed Thompkins block in overtime, I was surprised that receiver blocking appeared to be something of an issue on Saturday. This is an area when Penn State has traditionally excelled, no more so than the past two years. Thompkins and Juwan Johnson in particular have been very good blockers.
  50. This feels like something that can be corrected through film and effort, but it felt out of place.
  51. Penn State really missed DaeSean Hamilton on Saturday. There were multiple points where DaeSean would have kept a drive alive, but it died because receivers either couldn’t get open or dropped the ball.
  52. Juwan Johnson has everything you want in a receiver, but I thought he had a very average game against App State. Those drops/misses were tough to swallow.
  53. Thompkins was completely invisible on offense as well, which is baffling.
  54. This is a perfect example of what I was discussing above - Johnson and Thompkins are good players, but redshirt freshman KJ Hamler is electric, but inexperienced.
  55. Hamler was faking that delayed return all day. Good thing he went for it when it mattered.
  56. I’d like to see him even more involved moving forward. That’s probably the least controversial statement in here, but he just seems to have that “it” factor that makes him a star.
  57. Kid just gets open. On that one nice completion to Jonathan Holland, Hamler was open in the middle of the field. McSorley just got flushed out of the pocket and couldn’t find him easily.
  58. Speaking of Jonathan Holland, I thought he acquitted himself well on Saturday. Tight end was a question mark (and maybe still is), but he made some plays and seemed fine to my untrained eyes.
  59. Meanwhile, the defense looked solid for 3 quarters and then completely collapsed in the 4th. This would be stunning, except we’ve seen it happen time and again over the last few years. As has been pointed out in the comments here, USC scored 17 in the 4th to win, Iowa scored 12 points in the 4th to take a late lead, Ohio State scored 19 in the 4th to win, Nebraska scored 34 points in the second half, and even Washington clawed its way back in to make the score look much more respectable than it actually was.
  60. Yes, I’m stealing thoughts from the comments when they are the same as my own thoughts.
  61. On Saturday, Penn State walked into the 4th quarter with a 14 point lead. It had given up exactly 3 offensive points all day.
  62. It gave up 28 in the 4th quarter.
  63. That simply cannot happen. I don’t know whether it was play calling, experience, or both, but I know it needs to get fixed as soon as possible.
  64. Linebacker and defensive tackle recruiting were problematic for several years. Those deficiencies have now shown up in the depth chart, where the future stars are all freshmen.
  65. Micah Parsons played well and looks the part. He was out of position a bit, but you have to be pleased with his nose for the ball. By midseason, kid’s going to be a beast.
  66. App State obviously scouted for him. The series where he subbed in, every single play went directly to him. Smart coaching. Parsons handled himself well, though.
  67. Nick Scott can hit. So can Lamont Wade. I’m a little concerned about the rest of their games, though.
  68. For two experienced corners, I thought Amani Oruwariye and John Reid got beat by a young quarterback more often than I expected. We’ll see what that portends.
  69. Special teams....ugh. Honestly, I can’t even. Let’s just hope for better next week.
  70. There’s not much to say about Trace McSorley that hasn’t already been said. Ice in his veins, etc. The fact is, there’s no other quarterback I want in there with the game on the line. That touchdown pass to Hamler in the 4th quarter with pressure in his face is all you need to know to show what kind of player he is. Outstanding in every way.
  71. Lots of good things to say about the Mountaineers, particularly Jalin Moore and Zac Thomas. These guys can play, and I’m super impressed with the way the program as a whole has handled the transition to FBS. I’ll be cheering for them the rest of the way.
  72. But let’s never schedule them again, ok?
  73. Maybe I’m getting soft, but I found myself really enjoying Matt Millen on Saturday.
  74. Big game under the lights this coming weekend. Another early test. We should have a better understanding of who this team is by then. Have they cured some mistakes this week? Has the game plan changed? Or is this the team that we’re likely to see all year?
  75. On to Pittsburgh.
  76. We are...