Nittany Lions Cruise Past Akron in Season Opener
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Football is back and more anticipated than ever in Happy Valley. On a gloomy Saturday afternoon, a crowd of 101,684 people poured into Beaver Stadium to see their No. 6 Nittany Lions open the 2017 season against the Akron Zips.
The reigning Big Ten champions were ranked in the preseason AP Poll for the first time since 2010 and have all the pieces to make a strong push for the College Football Playoff in James Franklin’s fourth year as head coach.
While there is always plenty of room for improvement, the Nittany Lions began the 2017 season on an excellent note, with an authoritative 52-0 victory over the Zips.
“I thought it was probably the most complete football game we’ve played since we’ve been here [in terms of] offense, defense, and special teams,” Franklin said after the game.
Despite losing top wide receiver Chris Godwin to the NFL, second year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offense picked up right where it left off from last season, and immediately put on display what should be one of the most lethal offenses in the country.
The Nittany Lions returned a duo of Heisman Trophy candidates in Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley. Despite ending the first drive of the game with a McSorley interception in the red zone, that was basically the only miscue of the afternoon, and the offense immediately demonstrated a multitude of ways to keep opposing defenses on their heels.
“It’s unreal how many playmakers we have.” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “If a defense decides to load the box up to stop Saquon, then it opens things up for Juwan [Johnson], [DaeSean] Hamilton, Saeed [Blacknall], and De’Andre [Thompkins].”
One of the most glaring weaknesses for Penn State the last few years has been the dearth of explosive plays in the special teams games. However, it appears that the Nittany Lions may have found a valuable weapon for this area in De’Andre Thompkins.
On Akron’s second punt in as many drives, Thompkins decisively burst through a hole and put the jets on for a 61-yard punt return touchdown and the Nittany Lions’ first points of the season. The return marked the first time that Penn State scored via a punt return since Derrick Williams in 2008.
“To see our special teams and to see De’Andre Thompkins, specifically, get a punt return for a touchdown is awesome.” Franklin said.
Thompkins nearly took another one to the end zone on his next return, taking it 42 yards before being brought down.
Another major point of emphasis for James Franklin in the offseason was to create more turnovers. On the next Akron drive, Amani Oruwariye made a sensational interception in traffic on a deep throw down the sideline. Oruwariye, who will assume a more significant role this season as a result of John Reid’s season-ending knee injury, made several nice plays in the secondary throughout the game.
The Oruwariye interception was the lone turnover the Lions forced on Saturday, but the rest of the secondary looked very comfortable for the most part, allowing just 86 passing yards on the day.
“I thought that the interception that Amani had was really good.” Franklin said. “[He] stayed connected, confident, and comfortable, and then locating the ball, which is a difficult fundamental to learn. I thought it was really impressive.”
Then the offense got down to business. McSorley would connect with tight end Mike Gesicki for a 13-yard touchdown to cap off a 10-play, 75-yard drive. Gesicki would haul in one more touchdown pass late in the third quarter, finishing with a game-high six receptions for 58 yards.
On Penn State’s following drive, Saquon Barkley immediately would break through on the first play for an 80-yard run down to the Akron 7 yard line. McSorley would take care of the rest two plays later with a four-yard touchdown run up the middle.
Barkley would score two touchdowns of his own before the end of the half, including a 30-yard run along the left sideline. Barkley made an early Heisman case for himself, with a monster 145-yard first half. He would be replaced midway through the third quarter and end with 226 total yards.
McSorley continued his strong opening day in the third quarter, spreading the ball around, and continuing to be a threat on the ground. He would finish 18-25 with 328 (48 rushing) yards and three total touchdowns, before being replaced by Tommy Stevens in the fourth quarter.
McSorley will have another big target to help out with replacing Godwin in Juwan Johnson, who was steady in his first career start for the Nittany Lions. Johnson finished with four catches for 84 yards, showcasing his elite athleticism for his size. Hamilton also finished with three catches for 74 yards.
Penn State would score only once in the fourth quarter off of a Tommy Stevens 5-yard touchdown run. Despite a less impressive second half offensively, the Lions should be pleased with their execution on Saturday.
Penn State outgained Akron 569 to 159, and the first-team offense did not have to punt once all afternoon. They turned in a balanced attack with 322 yards through the air and 247 more on the ground, while also converting on five of six red zone opportunities.
“[Coach Moorhead] wants us to expect this kind of success; that we can go out and score on every drive, and that the only people that can stop us are us.” McSorley said.
The defense was also tremendous all day long, recording 14 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and limiting Akron to just 4-17 on third downs.
“I thought our defensive line was disruptive all day long. I’ve said since the day I got here that football is a game won in the trenches, and I think we’ve gotten a lot better on the offensive line and we did a great job making plays along the defensive line.” Franklin said.
It was an incredibly balanced team effort on this side of the ball, as 34 different players recorded a tackle, and not one player had more than five. Despite losing their two best defensive linemen in Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, it was evident that depth probably will not be much of an issue.
On paper, this matchup was undoubtedly supposed to finish with a lopsided score. However, the Lions made a big statement to the college football landscape on Saturday afternoon that they are here to stay. There is still much work to be done, but this year’s Penn State team has a chance to be one of the program’s best in recent memory.
“We still have a lot of work to do. Today we were a first half team. Now I have to get the second half fixed.” Franklin said. “I want our players to enjoy this game tonight, and then we’ll wake up tomorrow and grade the film, and then we’ll move onto [Pittsburgh].”
The Nittany Lions will be right back at Beaver Stadium next weekend for a showdown against in-state rival Pittsburgh at 3:30 p.m. The Lions will be looking for a bounce-back win over the Panthers, after a narrow defeat on the road last year. Pitt will be their toughest non-conference opponent. A win next Saturday would put them in great shape heading into Big Ten play.
Will Desautelle is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.
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