Nittany Lions open season vs. Appalachian State
College football season is officially here, which means it’s time to break down the Penn State Nittany Lions Week 1 match-up with the Sun Belt Conference’s Appalachian State Mountaineers (App State). The Nittany Lions are coming into 2018 with a fair amount of preseason hype, being ranked in the top 10 in both preseason polls.
Trace McSorley is a Heisman Trophy hopeful, and the Nittany Lions are looking to return to the Big Ten Championship for the second time in three years. Of course, they are also hoping to earn a berth to the College Football Playoff.
One thing is for sure, there’s plenty to look forward to for Penn State fans this season. But let’s first take a look at this afternoon’s opponent, Appalachian State (3:30 ET, BTN).
The Mountaineers are looking to win the Sun Belt Conference for the third consecutive time and get to a bowl game for the fourth straight year, so make no mistake about it, this team knows how to win. App State is going to try and run the football, as that’s what has worked for it under head coach Scott Satterfield. The Mountaineers averaged an impressive 223.6 rushing yards per game last season and return running back Jalin Moore, who rushed for over a 1,000 yards a season ago, with 12 touchdowns.
The Penn State defensive line is elite from the edges, but questions still aren’t answered from a depth perspective at defensive tackle. Kevin Givens is the only true proven commodity in that spot, although Robert Windsor has turned heads throughout camp and in the preseason. The Nittany Lions will need players like Fred Hansard, Antonio Shelton, Ellison Jordan, and PJ Mustipher to contribute right away in Penn State’s rotation.
The question is can the speed of the App State running game find holes in the middle of the Penn State defense, or are the Mountaineers overmatched in the trenches? My opinion is Penn State should be able to stop App State’s rushing game, but if the Nittany Lions give Moore and the Mountaineers rushing attack an inch, they will certainly take a mile.
“If you’re not sound, if you’re not in your gap, if you’re not gap responsible or over pursue or things like that, Moore is a guy that can stick his foot in the ground and go 80 at any point,” said Penn State head coach James Franklin. “He’s a home run hitter. There’s games where he has been highly, highly productive. There’s games where he hasn’t been, but what you’re dealing with, with him, is if there’s a hole, he has the ability to take it the distance.”
Stopping the App State run game will be the top priority of the day, but all eyes around the country will be paying attention to senior quarterback McSorley and the Nittany Lions offense. This season’s offensive unit has the chance to be special with what should be a really good offensive line group and an explosive set of wide receivers.
Don’t forget about breakout candidate Miles Sanders either, who was the No. 1 running back recruit in the country a few years ago. Sanders has the unfortunate task of trying to replace Saquon Barkley, but with an improved offensive line I believe he can have a very productive season.
The Mountaineers defense has been solid under Satterfield, but they haven’t faced the consistent talent of a Penn State team week in and week out. App State’s numbers are good as they let up just 342 yards of total offense per game last season, 136 yards rushing and 205 yards passing per game.
I think the difference in the match-up between Penn State’s offense and App State’s defense will once again be size. The Mountaineers, just like on offense, possess exceptional speed but not size. If the Penn State offensive line does its job and allows McSorley time in the pocket, then things will be clicking, especially if the run game can get going early on with Sanders.
One area to keep an eye on is the Mountaineers secondary vs. the Penn State receivers. Coach Franklin, in his Tuesday press conference, seemed impressed by the App State secondary unit. I happen to think the receiving core will be one of the Nittany Lions strengths throughout the year. Look for big 6-4 target Juwan Johnson to have a few big catches in this one.
“They are a three-down defense. You are going to look at them, they are undersized but they are quick, they are twitchy, they are explosive and they are very productive and they play fast. That will be a challenge for us, not only from a front perspective but also what they do,” said Franklin. “Their secondary has done an unbelievable job. Their corners, I think, have led the country in interceptions, especially their one corner has 11 interceptions (Clifton Duck) over the last two years.”
So, in this match-up it’s not quite David vs. Goliath. App State has shown since joining the FBS from the FCS that it’s a solid football program. It’s speed vs. what I think Penn State has in size, speed and strength will be the difference. If you want to go to a College Football Playoff and be a perennial top 10 program like Coach Franklin was saying in the offseason, then a team like App State has to be dismantled.
I think you might see some stubborn drives early on from the Mountaineers, because they do what they do so well, but the middle of Penn State’s defense will settle in and McSorley and the offense will take charge.
My prediction is Penn State 41, App State 17.