It wasn’t pretty, but it was a win
Welcome to week two, and if you’re a Nittany Lions fan, I’m sure that you’re feeling relieved to be entering this week with a 1-0 record. That’s because Penn State (1-0, No. 13 AP) gave most of the people in State College last Saturday quite the scare with a 45-38 overtime victory over Appalachian State.
Now, the Mountaineers are no slouch, and they’ve shown that over the years, defeating Michigan at the Big House in 2007 and taking then No. 9 Tennessee to overtime on the road in 2016 before losing that contest. Appalachian State is a solid non-power five conference school that has won the Sun Belt Conference the last two years and has also won three consecutive bowl games. So it’s not a total surprise that they were able to put up a fight against the Nittany Lions.
With that being said, there’s no doubt Penn State needs to clean some things up on the defensive side of the football. Giving up 451 yards of total offense to Appalachian State, regardless of its twitchy athletes and scheme is just too much to surrender with the talent that the Nittany Lions have on the field.
Undoubtedly, inexperience was a factor as some, if not most, of the players filling the void from players that were either lost to graduation or left early to join the NFL looked to be playing slow, instead of flying to the football. That of course leads to poor tackling, which was also an issue last week, and what you get is a 28-point fourth quarter performance from Appalachian State that almost resulted in a devastating opening weekend loss.
“We played like an inexperienced football team. We had a bunch of guys playing for the first time, guys that did not play as fast or as confident as I know they’re capable of,” said Penn State head coach James Franklin. “And then mistakes, not playing the techniques or the fundamentals the way we want them played, or not even the right assignments. So obviously, we gotta make big improvements between week one and week two.”
Needless to say, this week against rival Pitt (8 p.m. ET, ABC), the Penn State defense must be more sound, and play a more aggressive, fast, and physical type of defense. A key match-up in this one will be the Penn State front seven vs. the Pitt rushing attack. If Penn State can take the run away from the Panthers (1-0) early on and force quarterback Kenny Pickett to throw the football, it should give it plenty of opportunities on the offensive end to put points on the board with quarterback Trace McSorley.
Pitt rushed for 238 yards against FCS team Albany last week with Quadree Ollison leading the way with seven carries for 73 yards. Darrin Hall is also someone to watch out for as he rushed for 628 yards and nine scores last season. Penn State didn’t give up a ton of rushing yards (159) to Appalachian State, but they need to be better in the trenches at the defensive tackle position. Veteran Kevin Givens will be back after a one-game suspension and will help to solidify that unit, but others such as Robert Windsor, Antonio Shelton, Fred Hansard, Ellison Jordan and PJ Mustipher must do a better job of getting penetration, and wrapping up at the point of attack. Turning the Panthers offense one dimensional will be the key.
“As we all know, that was a big question mark (defensive tackle) going into the season, and they’re going to need to take a big step, and we’re going to need to take a big step from week one to week two, because you guys have heard me say this a thousand times, it starts up front on both offense and defense,” said Franklin. “I feel good about our defensive ends. I think we can be even more disruptive there, but I think our defensive tackles are going to take a big step for us this week and continue to grow and evolve.”
With the closeness of last week’s game and the defensive struggles, I think it gets lost a little bit that Penn State did actually win the game. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t to the standard that Coach Franklin holds his team to as far as execution goes, but the Nittany Lions still did come away with a “W.”
A big reason for that was No. 9 Trace McSorley. McSorley’s numbers weren’t staggering with 229 yards passing and one score, along with 53 rushing yards and two scores, but he once again led Penn State down the field when it mattered most, tying up the game with a dynamite 15-yard strike to breakout wide receiver KJ Hamler to send the game into overtime.
McSorley, like he will be every week, will be the key in this one on the offensive side of the ball. Personally, I wanted to see Penn State go down the field more against Appalachian State. I understand you don’t want to show everything in week one, but at some point, when you’re in a dog fight that stuff has to go out the window.
Look for Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins to have big games later tonight, as I think Pitt will try and take away Hamler after his breakout performance last week. Thompkins needs to get going, as he didn’t even have a catch last week and Johnson did drop some balls, but his physicality on the outside is unrivaled by most. Johnson should be a big-time mismatch for the Pitt defense.
Lastly, don’t forget about Penn State running back Miles Sanders, who had a nice opening week, rushing for just over 90 yards and two scores on 19 carries. Sanders is looking to have a big game in front of his family and friends, having graduated from Woodland Hills High School near Pittsburgh.
Las Vegas has Penn State as a 7.5-point favorite.
The Nittany Lions must stop the Pitt rushing attack, and contain quarterback Kenny Pickett who shows flashes of brilliance at times. He helped knock off an undefeated Miami team last year, passing for 193 yards, and rushing for 60 more. Keeping pressure on Pickett is key, as well as not letting him break contain out of the pocket.
I really do think this is a bounce back game for the Nittany Lions on defense – they should play better and more physical – and the offense should create opportunities downfield with McSorley and his talented group of wide receivers.
My pick is: Penn State 37, Pitt 17.