Game Grades: Akron
After winning the Big Ten conference title last season, including their first ever Big Ten Championship game appearance and victory, the No. 6 preseason Penn State Nittany Lions began their conference title defense against Akron.
With 101,000 rowdy fans packed into Beaver Stadium on a cold, wet September Saturday, the Blue and White rolled the Zips 52-0 for their first shutout win since 2007. Led by junior running back and Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley and redshirt junior quarterback Trace McSorley, the Nittany Lions got their 2017 season off to a great start and continue to prove that last season’s successes can be repeated.
Here are the game grades for Penn State football against Akron.
The quarterback performance Saturday was pretty good, but at times early season rust seemed to show. Starting quarterback Trace McSorley started the game off running more than passing. On the first drive of the game, there were multiple plays that were either designed for McSorley to run in the read option or just McSorley keeping plays alive with his feet and stretching for the first down. Inaccuracy was an early problem for the redshirt junior, with multiple passes missing behind or wide of streaking receivers. He threw an early interception in the end zone, but there was probably more blame on the receiver during the play than him. As the game continued, he began to shake the rust off, his accuracy improved as he hit many open receivers down the middle of the field, and his dangerous running ability continued to give the Zips fits. He finished a solid 18 of 25 for 280 yards with a touchdown and an interception. The read option threat with him and Barkley should continue to be a lethal combination like last season.
Backup quarterback and redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens also played about a quarter and looked very good. Stevens only threw for 42 yards, but did most of his damage on the ground. He ran for a late touchdown up the middle inside the Akron 10-yard line and showed the same threatening running abilities as McSorley.
Running Backs: A
Saquon Barkley could be heralded as the best running back in the Big Ten last season and arguably the country. He was an integral part in team’s run to the Rose Bowl. Now as a Heisman favorite, he picked up right where he left off.
Barkley finished with 14 carries for 172 yards (12.3 AVG) for two touchdowns and three catches for 54 yards. That’s 226 combined yards in just over three quarters of work. The junior dazzled fans with his shake and bake ability to make defenders miss and turned on the jets to streak down the field for big gains. One play, he was stopping his movement on a dime and reversing field. Another he was breaking off an 80-yard bolt down the Penn State sideline for a near touchdown. One of the most impressive plays of the day was his second touchdown scamper, where he bounced it to the outside and used good wide receiver blocking to round the edge and beat the defender’s angles to the pylon. If Barkley can continue to be a solid pass catcher as well as runner, this offense should thrive.
Wide Receivers: C+
Just because they scored 52 points doesn’t mean the whole offense was thriving. Just nine passes were caught by wide outs, none of them went over 100 yards and none of them caught touchdowns. Redshirt senior DaeSean Hamilton struggled early on, dropping three of his first four passes that should have easily been caught. Although he made some good open field, down the middle catches, it was a down day for No. 5. Redshirt junior DeAndre Thompkins got the start over senior Saeed Blacknall, which came as a surprise to many when the depth chart was released earlier in the week. Thompkins only hauled in two passes but made up for it later on special teams. Blacknall failed to record a catch in his multiple series. One big bright spot in the wide receivers was redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson. The 6-foot-4 target is a leading candidate to fill the void Chris Godwin left on the outside. Saturday, he caught four balls for 84 yards and showed he can hang on to catches in tight situations.
Tight Ends: A
Mike Gesicki has been established as one of the best red zone threats for this Penn State offense dating back to last season. Gesicki had his way with Akron, dominating in the red zone and hauling in six passes for 58 yards and two touchdowns. Gesicki struggled with catching the ball over the last couple of seasons, but he corrected those problems last season and has become one of the best tight ends in the nation. He should be counted on often throughout the season.
Offensive Line: B+
The offensive line had their ups and downs last season, but as the season wore on they got better and held their own. Faces have come and gone since January and it will remain to be seen how long it will take this season for chemistry to build between the linemen. Saturday was a good start for the men in the trenches. The first and most important job of a lineman is to protect the quarterback and they did that by not letting up a sack. The line frequently opened holes for Barkley, including his 80-yard scamper. They held their own in the red zone and allowed McSorley and Stevens to walk in for scores. The guards even made a beautiful play to pull to the left side and open a route for Barkley to walk into the end zone. They weren’t perfect and had their hiccups, but chemistry takes patience to develop and this was a step in the right direction.
Anytime a college football team can pitch a shutout, no matter who the opponent is, it was a good day for the defense. The secondary was shutting down all the Akron receivers and the defensive line frequently put pressure on the many quarterbacks Akron threw in the pocket. They only let up 159 total yards of offense. The linebacker combination of Manny Bowen, Cameron Brown, and Jason Cabinda held their own and should continue the “Linebacker U” label of Penn State. Impressive Saturday was redshirt sophomore linebacker Jarvis Miller and redshirt sophomore defensive end Ryan Buchholz. Miller stepped up for five tackles, three solo and one sack. When starting defensive end Shareef Miller exited with injury, Buchholz came on and performed for four tackles, two solo, one sack and one and half tackles for loss. The line, linebackers, and secondary were all on point and showed the rest of the Big Ten how stifling they can be.
Special Teams: A-
DeAndre Thompkins electrified Beaver Stadium with an elusive punt return for a touchdown for the first touchdown of the game. He finished with four returns for 127 yards, a 31.8 average. An impressive return game for him should hopefully establish an impressive return game all season for the Lions. Tyler Davis was alright overall. He knocked down a 47-yard field goal, but missed one closer than that. He made all his extra points and his kickoffs were good. Overall, Davis was inconsistent and inconsistency won’t help in winning the Big Ten again. Amazingly, the Nittany Lions only punted twice the whole game and in the late fourth quarter when it didn’t matter anymore. That was how good their offense was. Akron never attempted a field goal or extra point, which shows testament to Penn State’s defense.
To open the season, James Franklin and his staff had quite a quirky game. Their strategy going in had to be to not use all their playbook against a weak Akron and save their best plays and strategies for bigger opponents. They did just that, as Saquon only ran 14 times and Trace only threw 25 passes. The defense and Brent Pry called a perfect game and he had his players ready to go. The only downside to Saturday’s game was the coaching staff and James Franklin left their starters in far too long. McSorley played all the way into the fourth quarter. The score at halftime was 35-0 and the defense was in control so it would not have been a bad idea to pull the starters after halftime. Thankfully, no big player got hurt on both sides of the ball, but it was certainly risky.
Matthew Harvey is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism and history. To contact him, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Contributors
Senior / Broadcast Journalism and History