Penn State opened the year in impressive fashion, smashing Akron 52-0. It was the first shutout in a season-opener since 2007, when the Nittany Lions beat FIU 59-0. This was an even better result than I predicted in the season preview, but I’m certainly not complaining. There are several similarities already between this team and that one.
Though Akron was clearly an inferior opponent, there are many lessons learned when dissecting Penn State’s performance. For one, when you face an opponent you should handily beat, you don’t allow any lapses – you shut them out. I loved the focus from start to finish on the defensive side of the ball. Amani Oruwariye offered shades of Justin King with a sparkling interception and a pass-defend that showcased his closing speed and athleticism. He should be really fun to watch in a secondary already boating big-play specialists Grant Haley and Marcus Allen. It is nice to again enjoy quality depth with blue-chip athletes. These pre-conference games provide good opportunities to get the reserves needed experience should they be called upon later in the year.
The rainy setting looked to play a part early, with Tyler Davis missing an early field goal. He knocked through a 47-yarder later in the day, and was perfect on [the many] extra points. Blake Gillikin remains a huge asset in the field position game, averaging 50 yards on his two punts. But the story of the day on special teams was clearly Deandre Thompkins, who emerged as a weapon on punt returns. Reminiscent of Derrick Williams, he averaged nearly 32 yards on 4 punt returns including an electric 61-yard touchdown. Another benefit of regaining top-talent team depth, the special teams could be a marked upgrade this season. Not only would an improved return game tilt the field in Penn State’s favor, it would reduce Barkley’s carries and alleviate the burden on the defense.
Call this game the Barkley Heisman Campaign launch party. Only carrying the ball 14 times, he was clearly the best player on the field. An 80-yard gain (that should have been a touchdown) and a 30-yard touchdown run illustrated the raw talent he has as a runner. Adding 54 receiving yards, he is emerging in the dual-threat RB/WR role Le’Veon Bell has made famous. McSorley atoned for a pretty bad early interception with a 72% completion, 280-yard performance with 2 TD’s to Mike Gesicki. DaeSean Hamilton looked shaky at the outset with a couple of familiar-looking drops, but he settled down to add 74 yards on 3 receptions. If he focuses and comes off the blocks ready to play, Hamilton could leave as Penn State’s all-time leading receiver. The most pleasant surprise was the play of Juwan Johnson, the tall receiver who led the receiving corps with 84 yards. Though he can’t be expected to replace Chris Godwin, the deep threat he provides coupled with possession-receiver Hamilton and other-worldly talent of Barkley and Gesicki should keep the secondary off balance most of the time.
The only real weakness the 2016 squad had was coming out slowly in the first half. They had multiple come-from-behind wins (notably Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin) and a couple that they couldn’t overcome (Pitt, Michigan, USC). It’s dangerous to ask your team to come from behind each game, and the coaching staff clearly wanted to ensure the team was ready for the opening kick. This team has big goals, and it all starts with focus and discipline throughout.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn