Breaking Down Penn State’s Season Opener Against The Golden Flashes
Penn State gets its season underway at home in Beaver Stadium for the first time since 2011 with a rather familiar opponent coming to town in Kent State. Saturday’s contest will kickoff at 3:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.
The last time the Nittany Lions played Kent State in 2013, Bill O’Brien’s squad rolled to an easy 34-0 victory, extending Penn State’s shutout streak in the series to 11 quarters. The Golden Flashes are coming off a 3-9 campaign, and although they sported a unit ranked 27th in the FBS in total defense, the other side of the ball was a complete disaster. Kent State finished 126th out of 127 Division I teams in total offense last fall with a rough 270.8 yards per game.
Quarterback: Advantage — Penn State
James Franklin named Trace McSorley his starting quarterback a little over a week ago, while at the same time mentioning that he’ll always prefer to stick with one guy at the position if possible. Kent State’s breaking in a new signal caller in true freshman Justin Agner, but it plans to play both Mylik Mitchell and George Bollas, the only one who’s taken a snap on the college level. You’ve probably heard the saying, “If you have two quarterbacks, you have none.” Well, the Golden Flashes have three to worry about and it remains to be seen whether their substitution pattern will even bother Brent Pry’s defense.
Running Back: Advantage — Penn State
Come on, this one doesn’t require much thought. Kent State plans to start a true freshman at tailback in Justin Rankin, which either means he’s a stud or the returning options weren’t all that impressive. Regardless, it’s hard to argue with a Saquon Barkley-led backfield that’s as diverse and explosive as any in the Big Ten and beyond.
Wide Receiver: Advantage — Penn State
Again, this is another situation where the Nittany Lions are simply loaded at wideout with a starting trio of Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton, and Saeed Blacknall, plus plenty of young talent ready to shine, like Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles. The Golden Flashes’ top returning options at receiver — Kris White and Johnny Woods — combined for 43 catches and 395 yards in 2015. Former running back Nick Holley slid down to the slot this offseason and provides a unique skillset as an experienced redshirt junior.
Tight End: Advantage — Penn State
The Nittany Lions are really hurting for proven depth at tight end with the departure of Adam Breneman to a brief retirement and then UMass and undrafted free agent signee Kyle Carter to the Minnesota Vikings. Junior Mike Gesicki will receive plenty of action in Joe Moorhead’s new offense, but redshirt junior Tom Pancoast, who was listed second on Tuesday’s depth chart following news of Nick Bowers’ season-ending injury, should see the field a bunch, as well. Jonathan Holland and perhaps true freshman Danny Dalton will rotate in for position coach Ricky Rahne at some point this season. Kent State’s projected starter Brice Fackler hauled in 10 grabs for 72 yards and a touchdown last year.
Offensive Line: Toss Up
Kent State returns 105 career starts along its offensive line, while the Nittany Lions, under the watchful eye of new position coach Matt Limegrover, line up a veteran bunch of their own that boasts 91 starts but seems to have finally turned the corner from an overall depth and young talent perspective. Penn State has the added bonus of blocking for the electric Barkley, coupled with the fact that it won’t have to hold its blocks quite as long in the new no-huddle offense. We’ll see which side plays with the most tenacity in the trenches Saturday.
Defensive Line: Advantage — Penn State
Though four Wild Dogs are on to the NFL, Penn State should feel pretty good about its starting four of Garrett Sickels, Evan Schwan, Parker Cothren, and redshirt freshman sensation Kevin Givens. The Golden Flashes will lean on senior Terence Waugh to set the pace for their defensive line, but from a top-down standpoint, it’s apparent Sean Spencer has a much deeper bunch to work with.
Linebacker: Advantage — Penn State
Pry’s starting three of Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell, and Jason Cabinda compose one of, if not the best, linebacking corps in the Big Ten, while Kent State boasts a solid 70 career starts at the position and adds former Ohio State transfer Najee Murray to its “Apache” spot from cornerback. Keep an eye on the development of true sophomores Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper, as each will play a crucial role in the rotation for the Nittany Lions all season.
Secondary: Advantage — Penn State
Penn State should feel really good about its starters in Grant Haley and John Reid at corner and Marcus Allen and Malik Golden at safety, but it’s the overall talent level of the defensive backs that has fans excited to see what some of the freak athletes like Koa Farmer and Nick Scott can do. The Golden Flashes boast one of the premier secondaries in the MAC due to guys like Nick Holley’s twin brother Nate, who should start at free safety.
Special Teams: Advantage — Penn State
Losing outstanding punter Anthony Melchiori to graduation certainly doesn’t help Kent State’s chances in the field-position game, as its four-year starter was an ace at pinning opposing teams deep with a hanging spiral. Instead, we’ll see a pair of true freshmen battle it out in Blake Gillikin and Manheim, Pa., native Derek Adams. Penn State likes what redshirt junior kicker Tyler Davis brings to the table in terms of consistency, as he beat out Joey Julius and Gillikin’s classmate Alex Barbir for the starting job to open the season. There’s a strong chance we’ll see Saquon Barkley return a kick or two against the Golden Flashes, so that’s reason enough to give the nod to Charles Huff’s boys.
Saturday’s home opener will provide the all-important first glance at how Penn State’s improved in all three facets of the game, which will be especially noteworthy of its revamped offense. The Golden Flashes shouldn’t stick around too long with the kind of talent James Franklin trots out in year three of the reloading process. The Nittany Lions are considered a three-touchdown favorite.