A look into the Lion’s den: Penn State welcomes Appalachian State to kickstart the season

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Before this even remotely gets started: Appalachian State defeated Michigan in the 2007 season opener.

That felt so forced, but nearly necessary, almost as if you had it in the back of your mind, stewing since the 2018 football schedule dropped. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a sign that an FBS team once took down a Big Ten power, and a reminder that the Mountaineers used that win, along with a very successful 2007 campaign, to springboard into the FCS a few years later.

Two things to consider: this isn’t the same Appalachian State team, and this Penn State team is likely more talented than that Michigan roster was.

Now we can truly get down into the nitty gritty of things.

Appalachian State comes into Beaver Stadium fresh off a 9-4 2017 campaign which ended for with the Mountaineers being crowned co-champions of the Sun Belt in the final year without a conference championship game. It was an interesting season for Appalachian State, as the team won ten total games, including blowing out Toledo 34-0 during bowl season. The team also lost to UMass, who won just four games last season, in overtime. Despite the oddity of the loss to the lowly Minutemen, it was a another wildly successful year for Scott Satterfield, who has now won three straight bowl games, losing just thrice in conference play over the last three seasons.

But now the Mountaineers will have to deal with life after Taylor Lamb. The four year starter threw 90 career touchdown passes and added another 23 with his legs in his time in North Carolina. Those touchdown numbers stand as both a program and Sun Belt record. His nearly 10,000 passing yards are second in school history. Only six quarterbacks in the conference’s history have thrown for more yards. He’s second in total offense, games played and win, behind only Armanti Edwards in school history. Armanti Edwards, I might add, happens to be the quarterback that led the Mountaineers to that aforementioned upset of the Wolverines 11 years ago.

What this is boils down to: the Mountaineers are going to need to find a way to replace a ton of productivity. For that, Appalachian State will turn to third-tea preseason selection, sophomore Zach Thomas. Thomas threw just ten passes in his freshman campaign, so he’ll be thrown to the wolves in his first collegiate start in Happy Valley. It isn’t an ideal situation for a young, inexperienced quarterback to come into, but the Mountaineers focus so heavily on their rushing attack that Thomas could simply make himself a game manager in this one.

The bulk of the work will instead be passed to running back Jalin Moore. Moore looks for his third consecutive 1,000 yard season as he starts his senior campaign. He ranks second among active rushers in yards (behind just Myles Gaskins, of Washington) with 3,170. Moore has led the Sun Belt in rushing yards now in consecutive season, and will likely be heading to the NFL when all is said and done this year.

Moore will likely get the majority of the carries as he looks to attempt to split a Penn State defensive front that will be full of fresh faces. A slew of injuries to the Penn State defense last season forced Torrence Brown and Ryan Bucholz to retire from the game. Yetur Gross-Mats and Shaka Toney will get the chance to line up opposite Shareef Miller on the outside, with the middle being filled by Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor. Penn State gave up the 14th fewest rushing yards per game last year, 118, but with a cast of new faces, expect that number to rise slightly this season. Moore will get the first crack at adding to that average.

The Mountaineers are deep within the team’s receiving and tight end core. Thomas Hennigan returns as the leading receiver for Appalachian State, but he’ll be joined by a pair of transfers from Kansas State in Corey Sutton and Dominique Heath. Sutton joins the fold with little playing experience, but Heath, the graduate transfer, caught 95 balls for nearly 950 yards and seven touchdowns in his final three years with the Wildcats. He brings explosiveness to the Mountaineer offense. They’ll get the chance to test John Reid first this season, who missed all last year with an injury. Reid will go opposite Amani Oruwariye.

Final Prediction: Penn State 41-17

The fact that this game is being played in 2018 is a blessing for Penn State. That’s not to say that the Nittany Lions wouldn’t have beaten Appalachian State last season, because the talent level is such that it would have been hard to deny them that victory in 2017 either. But the loss of Taylor Lamb might be more critical to the Mountaineers’ success than the loss of Saquon Barkley is to Penn State’s. When a team goes from a sure-fire school Hall of Famer to a relative unknown, that’s cause for at least internal concern for the program. Appalachian State is a good football team. Penn State’s defense could have a ton of moving parts this season. This isn’t a cake-walk opener for Penn State. But the talent on each side of the field at the most important position in football is so contrasting that I find it nearly impossible for Penn State to lose this game. The Nittany Lions might come out rusty. Perhaps they’ll even fall behind early. It may be a little uncomfortable for fans to start out. But the more talented team will win the day, and win it big. The line, in most places, in 24. That’s coincidentally the difference of the final I’ve chosen. I could go either way with it, so I would advise you to stay away from the deceiving line.

Bottom line: Penn State wins big, even it doesn’t feel that way. But one things is likely: you’ll respect the Sun Belt for the effort Appalachian State puts forth.

 

Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

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