gLast week, I gave a game score prediction in which I moderately tempered expectations of week one against Akron. I concluded my game preview with a final score of 41-13 in favor of Penn State. I assumed that a comfortable 28 point win would be about right to open the season in a game that the starter would likely be riding the pine by the end of the third quarter against a team that has scoring capability, but a lackluster defense. Penn State showed me exactly what they thought of my expectations. Maybe it was a better offense than I could have imagined. Maybe it was the fact that Akron’s quarterback, Thomas hadn’t seen game action in close to a year and was a bit rusty. Maybe it was culminating facets of the entire Penn State team overmatching Akron. Whatever it was, I did not expect 52-0.
But what I did expect, or at least was looking for, were certain aspects of the Nittany Lion team. We all knew they were going to win. While certain teams *cough, cough, Baylor* dropped games to the likes of Liberty University, it was almost certain Penn State would leave Beaver Stadium 1-0. So in these “pay for play” type games, you want to look for certain things that could show the depth of talent of this 2017 Penn State team.
NOTE: I’m not taking the complete easy way out here. I refuse to say “#1 Saquon Barkley is a stud”. I won’t do it. You won’t hear that once from me this year. I know it. You know it. It’d be like saying the sky is blue and water is wet. We’re just not going to state the obvious this season.
Regardless, here’s what I saw in week one.
1. Mike Gesicki and Juwan Johnson Are Matchup Nightmares
When your team plays these easier non-conference games, you have to take stats with a grain of salt. They’re likely inflated because of the mismatch in talent. But what I saw from tight end Mike Gesicki and wide receiver Juwan Johnson was this: 10 catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns. While Johnson didn’t score, he helped Trace McSorley stretch the middle of the field with intermediate and semi-deep routes. The pair were able to run quesi-cross routes with each other, effectively screening the others defender, in order to get open down field. Gesicki is 6’6″, 250 pounds. Johnson is 6’4″, 226 pounds. When you line the pair up on the same side of the field and effectively use them as almost catapults for each other, they’ll be extremely difficult to stop in the flat or down the middle of the field. Gesicki has linebacker size and wide receiver speed, making him a threat to any outside linebacker trying to match up with him in man-to-man coverage. No cornerback will be able ot get up and over Johnson on anything remotely thrown as a jump ball. Both get great push off the line of scrimmage and create separation from their defender with relative ease. Johnson caught two balls all of last season. I’d be surprised to see him catch just two balls in any game this year. I expected big things from the redshirt sophomore, and so far, against a lesser opponent, he delivered. I don’t want to drink from the fountain of hope after just one game, but the physicality of the two, especially when lined up on the same side of the field, will be difficult to contain.
2. The Nittany Lion Defense Has a Replacement For John Reid
When John Reid went down with an apparent knee injury back in April during spring ball, a collective groan could be heard echoing from the droves of Penn State fans scattered across the globe. At a position that was somewhat suspect last season, John Reid was a constant in the secondary. Losing him meant that Penn State was going into 2017 without its number one, shut down cornerback. In stepped redshirt junior Amani Oruwariye (pronounced Or-you-wahr (rhymes with far)-ee-aye, so we don’t have to do this every time his name is mentioned). Oruwariye picked up three tackles in yesterday’s game and jumped in front of a receiver’s route for an interception. What Oruwariye did so well on that pick was pace with the receiver stride for stride, while keeping his head on a swivel, and picked up the football in the air before the Arkon receiver was able to do so. The corner will use his height and size to his advantage all season long. Very rarely do you see 6’1″ cornerbacks with the foot speed to keep up with receivers down field, but Oruwariye has that rare combination of both. As the season progresses, and Big Ten conference play rolls around, I’d expect to see Oruwariye put on somewhat of an island against the taller pass catchers of the conference. Simmie Cobbs and Nick Westbrook come to mind? At 6’4″ and 6’3″ respectfully, it’s no coincidence that Ohio State seems to always just narrowly escape when they play the Indiana Hoosiers. The length of Indian’s receivers cause severe mismatches in the secondary. Penn State faithful hope that Oruwariye can quell at least one of those problems.
3. Trace McSorley and Tommy Stevens Are As Good A 1-2 Punch In All CFB
With the game well in hand as the second half drew on, James Franklin decided to pull many of his starters, including quarterback Trace McSorley. We all expected a Tommy Stevens appearance at some point in this lopsided contest, but to what extent remained to be known. Stevens was a pedestrian 3-6 for 46 yards and eventually pushed across a rushing touchdown late in the game, but the stats aren’t the defining factor of his time in action yesterday. What really caught my attention was the way Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead used Stevens. Before McSorley checked out for the day, Stevens appeared in a few packages on the field at the same time as McSorley. He lined up in the slot a few times and even went out on a passing route at one point. While it’s not advisable to put your backup quarterback in the game as a wide receiver all that often, especially when your starter is a mobile quarterback, putting himself at the mercy of the defense on certain plays, the gadgetry might have just been a glimpse of what’s to come from the Nittany Lion offense. In my mind, Stevens could be a starting quarterback at 90 percent of FBS schools, and the fact that Penn State is able to utilize him as a backup is just an added bonus. But being able to put he and McSorley on the field at the same time in certain packages could just be enough to fool defense for a few plays each game. The Nittany Lions could put two extremely capable signal callers and downfield passers on the field at the same time. I’d venture to guess Stevens will primarily be a decoy on these plays, perhaps seeing a fake pitch to lure opposing defenses into thinking he’ll be the one throwing the ball. Either way, it’s certainly a luxury to have.
4. Penn State Special Teams Will Be Deadly
Long gone are the days of Sam Ficken four missed field goals, shanked punts from Alex Butterworth and linebacker Gerald Hodges lining up to return punts. At least for this season, none of that is expected. Tyler Davis has become one of the most consistent kickers in all of college football. In fact, yesterday’s missed field goal from Davis was the first non-blocked kick he’s missed in his collegiate career. Throughout his career, he’s now 31-34, good enough for 91 percent. He’s also 80-80 on extra points. Punter Blake Gillikin has solidified the position to one of second thought. Last year, he average almost 43 yards a punt on 61 attempts. In his first two this year, he’s averaging 50 a kick. Butterworth averaged no better than 39.2 yards per attempt in his Penn State career. And finally, the return game. The Nittany Lions have so many options to choose from when returning punts and kicks. Of course, DeAndre Thompkins returned a punt for a touchdown against Akron yesterday, and he’ll remain the primary option to do just that. Thompkins has track star speed, and as evident by his return yesterday, good downfield vision, as he followed his blocks nicely on the return for six. But outside of Thompkins, James Franklin could utilize so many weapons. While not advisable, he could turn to Saquon Barkley in a big time spot. Barkley could be called upon just like Brian Westbrook was after he established himself as the Eagles’ feature back. Andy Reid used him in only the biggest special teams situations because he knew Westbrook was the best athlete on the team. The same can be said for Barkley. The Nittany Lions could also go with a number of options including running back Miles Sanders, wide receiver Brandon Polk or even converted safety Nick Scott. The possibilities at special team seem endless for Penn State and will certainly work in the team’s favor as the season progresses.
Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports