Three Big Takeaways From Penn State’s Season-Opening Win
Penn State rolled out its new-look offense Saturday in a 33-13 win over Kent State in Beaver Stadium. Though the Nittany Lions got off to a slow start with two straight three-and-outs, 20 unanswered points — sparked by an Amani Oruwariye pick six — showed that even a small glimpse of Joe Moorhead’s system yielded significant results.
Here are our three biggest takeaways from Penn State’s season opener and how they could play into this weekend’s long-awaited noon showdown with Pitt at Heinz Field.
Limited Look At Moorhead’s Offense Shows Vast Improvement
Junior receiver Chris Godwin, who solidified himself as Penn State’s most complete weapon in the passing game last year, hauled in a game-high seven receptions for 67 yards against the Golden Flashes, but the Middletown, Del., native said that significant portions of the new playbook were kept under wraps.
“I don’t think we saw a lot of the offense. I think we have a lot more that we can bring out,” Godwin said following the victory. “Obviously, game plan dictates those things and the look that the defense is giving us, but it was fun going against another team.”
The obvious benefits were seen along the offensive line too, where a mostly veteran group coupled with some standout freshmen enjoyed a successful afternoon that featured a lone hiccup on the game-tying sack/fumble for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Despite breaking the 30-point threshold for only the seventh time in Franklin’s first 27 games, it was clear there’s plenty of room for attainable improvement, which never seemed to be the case with John Donovan on the headset. Trace McSorley showed some really encouraging signs in his first start, but there’s definitely room for improvement in terms of putting it in a better spot for his receivers on deep balls.
“We’ve gotta be cleaner, we’ve gotta score touchdowns,” James Franklin said after the game. “We can’t settle for field goals in the red zone, there’s no doubt about that. I think if you look back at that game, we left 14 to 21 points on the board.”
Sean Spencer’s Wild Dog Reload Already Exceeding Expectations
The detractors said losing four defensive linemen to the NFL would undoubtedly change Penn State’s identity’s in the trenches, but the early going of its rebuild is off to a great start thanks to a splendid seven-sack outing for the defense.
The unit’s leader, defensive end Garrett Sickels, took it upon himself to mentor redshirt freshmen Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz this summer and both certainly made a splash in their debut, recording two and one sacks, respectively. Sickels would finish with one sack, while defensive tackle Antoine White had himself a ballgame with 1.5.
“I’m really excited for those young guys who really came on today,” Sickels said. “I kinda took it personally this offseason with everyone saying I played in the shadows…and what are we gonna do without [Carl] Nassib and [Anthony] Zettel and [Austin Johnson] and Tarow [Barney], so seeing everyone, how well we did today, really made me proud to be at the head of that.”
Special Teams Finally Looks Like A Strength
Charles Huff’s special teams units showed a significant uptick is on the way this fall and there were certainly glimpses of what could be going forward. Freshman punter Blake Gillikin proved to be an immediate upgrade, as the Smyrna, Ga., native ranks second in the Big Ten and ninth nationally in punting average (47.0 yards) after his first game.
Converted safety Nick Scott and true freshman running back Miles Sanders split time returning kicks for the Nittany Lions, but the big surprise was seeing sophomore corner John Reid as the starting punt returner after not being listed at the position on the first depth chart. Scott busted off a 30-yard return against the Golden Flashes, while Reid made a handful of Kent State defenders look foolish on a 21-yard effort of his own.
“We started to work John in,” Franklin said. “We had four guys (Gregg Garrity, DeAndre Thompkins, Mark Allen, and Brandon Polk) that we were working back there, and really the last week and a half he started to make a move there, and we made the decision late this week that [we] felt confident enough to put him back there to do that.
“As you know with John, once he decides he’s gonna be the punt returner, he’s gonna stay out there after practice on his own with managers or with [Jordan] Wombacker — one of our punters — and get a bunch of work. He’s done that and I think he’s got a chance to be a weapon for us down the road.”