Penn State’s Post-Appalachian State Report Card
It wasn’t pretty, but No. 10 Penn State opened the season in the win column after an overtime thriller against Appalachian State. Some players came ready to play, while others, well…didn’t…in Penn State’s first-ever meeting with the Mountaineers.
Here’s how some of the team’s key position groups performed in Saturday’s opener:
Quarterback/Running Back: A-
Trace McSorley picked up right where he left off last season and began his Heisman campaign with a strong performance at Beaver Stadium. McSorley rushed for 53 yards and passed for 230 yards, tallying three touchdowns.
The only knock on the redshirt senior’s game is his relatively low passing yardage on the afternoon. That isn’t all his fault, as Penn State’s receivers struggled at times against the Mountaineer defense, which James Franklin described as “twitchy.”
At running back, Miles Sanders’ debut as a starter could not have gone much better, especially considering Franklin’s willingness to rotate at the position. He scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime, and rushed for 91 yards on 18 attempts.
Besides Sanders, Ricky Slade was extremely impressive in his limited minutes on the field. Listed third on the game’s depth chart, the true freshman scored his first collegiate touchdown to cap off a drive where he rushed for 39 yards on just five carries.
Mark Allen also put together a decent game running for 24 yards on five carries.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: C-
KJ Hamler was the standout of this group, leading the Nittany Lions in receiving yards with 68 on just four receptions. His 15-yard touchdown grab late in the fourth quarter tied the game after he faked a touchback on Appalachian State’s kickoff.
In his first NCAA game, Hamler proved that he deserved the starting job in the slot by making two crucial plays for the Nittany Lions.
Juwan Johnson led Penn State in receptions on the afternoon (six for 67 yards), but dropped several passes that stalled the team’s momentum on offense. If he’s going to be Penn State’s number one receiver, he’ll need to bounce back after this performance.
Fellow starting wideout DeAndre Thompkins was completely shut down on the afternoon, failing to haul in a single reception. Brandon Polk, who lost the starting job in the slot to KJ Hamler, didn’t feature too much, but made a crucial catch on fourth-and-two on the game-tying drive at the end of regulation.
Jonathan Holland and Danny Dalton, who have Mike Gesicki-sized shoes to fill, had a pedestrian season opener, combining for 38 yards on three receptions.
Beyond the stat sheet, the wide receivers could have had a much better game blocking downfield on rushing plays. Players like DaeSean Hamilton and Chris Godwin were extremely effective in this department, so this current group of players must improve to more create room for the likes of Miles Sanders and Trace McSorley.
Offensive Line: C+
A major storyline from this offseason was the improvement of the offensive line, but the unit struggled in the first half of Saturday’s game. The stat sheet only shows one sack and two tackles-for-loss allowed, but Trace McSorley was flushed out of the pocket and forced to throw the ball away on several occasions.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, the offensive line got better in the second half. There’s plenty of opportunity for improvement here, but the offensive line showed flashes of its promise.
Front Seven: C
It wasn’t a great day for Penn State’s defense, but if one group stands out in the unit, it’s the defensive linemen and linebackers.
The group struggled to get to Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas, picking up just two sacks and hitting him on three other occasions. It’s hard to be too critical of the defensive line in particular, though, as Yetur Gross-Matos and Fred Hansard started in the place of Shane Simmons (injury) and Kevin Givens (suspension).
At linebacker, Jan Johnson led the Nittany Lions in tackles with 11 in Saturday’s game. The brightest star for the Nittany Lions was Micah Parsons, who impressed in his limited action. The defensive end-turned-linebacker finished his Penn State debut with four tackles on the day.
Shareef Miller — a veteran starter for the Nittany Lions — whiffed on a crucial tackle attempt as Zac Thomas waltzed into the end zone to tie the game at 31 with six minutes to play in the fourth quarter. The front seven needs to improve on tackling in general.
Penn State’s secondary was perhaps the weakest point of the defense in its first game without Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Troy Apke, and Christian Campbell.
Amani Oruwariye saved this group from earning a failing grade in this game with his game-sealing interception in overtime. His opposite starter, John Reid, made just one tackle and had a relatively quiet afternoon. Reid was burned on a wheel route as Appalachian State scored its second of four touchdowns in the final quarter of the game.
Nick Scott had a solid game, tallying nine tackles and a sack, but fellow starter Garrett Taylor missed several surefire tackles, including one on the Mountaineers’ go-ahead touchdown with less than two minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
This group was picked apart in the passing game several times over, particularly on wheel routes deep on the sideline.
Special Teams: B+
Saturday was an up-and-down day for Penn State on special teams. The Nittany Lions successfully converted an onside kick but also allowed one at a critical point in the game. They also allowed a kickoff to be returned for a touchdown on Appalachian State’s first drive of the afternoon.
True freshman Jake Pinegar didn’t have to attempt any field goals from crazy distances, but finished 5-for-5 on extra points and made his only field goal attempt of the game from 32 yards out.
Rafael Checa’s first kickoff of the game was returned for a touchdown, but he bounced back nicely from that setback with several touchbacks. Blake Gillikin averaged 43 yards through his five punts. His onside kick up the middle before halftime was placed perfectly for Parsons to recover.
The returners didn’t have many opportunities to take kicks back, but when they did, they looked very solid. DeAndre Thompkins’s lone punt return of the afternoon was a 29-yard pickup, and KJ Hamler set up Penn State in excellent field position with a 52-yard return prior to its final offensive drive in regulation. If given the opportunity, the Nittany Lions can do some serious damage in the return game.
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