STATE COLLEGE — It was a sight Penn State hadn’t seen in nearly nine full years. And inside Beaver Stadium? Make it a decade.
That would be a punt return for a touchdown by the Nittany Lions.
DeAndre Thompkins didn’t waste time in ending the long, long drought, scoring Penn State’s first points of the 2017 season on a 61-yard return Saturday against Akron.
The play featured strong blocking and put a casual juke on the punter to finish it off.
As it so happens, the last Lions player to pull off the feat — on the road and at home — was standing only about 40 yards away from this one.
Former All-America return man Derrick Williams, now a sideline reporter for the Penn State radio network, had the most recent punt return score. That came all the way back in a 2008 game at Camp Randall against Wisconsin, a 63-yard score that keyed a rout that fueled the Lions run to a Big Ten title.
Thompkins and his teammates were well aware just how long a wait it had been.
“Throughout the whole program, that’s something that’s always been talked about,” Thompkins said. “Who’s gonna break it?
“Coming into this game, I knew I had a good chance. I trusted my guys a lot and I had a chip on my shoulder. I knew I had to break it this game.”
Williams was also the last Penn State player to take a punt all the way back at Beaver Stadium. That one came in a 2007 win over Notre Dame and went for 78 yards.
Thompkins had previously been the Lions’ punt returner in 2015 as a redshirt freshman but gave way to the now-injured John Reid for most of last season.
This time around, Thompkins looked much more confident after having some ball security issues two years ago.
“Very rewarding to me (because) we’ve been investing in special teams in a lot of different ways,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “Time. Resources. And to see our special teams — and to see DeAndre Thompkins specifically have a punt return for a touchdown is awesome.”
Now the Lions’ special teams unit has one more slump to snap. The next kickoff return for a touchdown will be the first since Chaz Powell took the opening kick of the 2011 season 95 yards to paydirt against Indiana State.
• New starting defensive end Shareef Miller made his presence felt on the opening drive, quickly getting into the Akron backfield.
It ended up being his only action of the day.
Miller went to the sideline afterward with athletic trainers looking at his left leg. Fellow sophomore Ryan Buchholz replaced him on the next drive, though the Lions rotated all of the linemen liberally throughout the afternoon.
• As expected, tackle Andrew Nelson suited up for the first time since suffering a major knee injury last October, but the senior did not play on Saturday.
Franklin said earlier in the week he expected Nelson to play a big role this season but that he was still working his way back to 100 percent.
• Nick Bowers’ college debut was delayed again.
The sophomore tight end from Kittanning redshirted in 2015 and missed all of 2016 because of injury. Though he was a participant in training camp, he wasn’t dressed on Saturday.
Another tight end, Abington Heights grad Joe Arcangelo, was in uniform for the Lions for the first time since transferring from Bucknell.
• Also missing was junior running back Mark Allen, who was not in uniform on the sideline.
Saquon Barkley skipped into the end zone for an apparent 87-yard touchdown in front of the Penn State sideline in the second quarter on Saturday.
Officials ruled, however, that he stepped out of bounds at the 7. Barkley himself afterward said he was pretty sure that he had a foot on the chalk.
Where the Lions were confused, however, was that they were told that the play was not allowed to be reviewed by instant replay just to check.
“I was told that’s not a reviewable play,” Franklin said. “Which doesn’t make sense to me.”
Franklin said he will seek further explanation this week.
All three true freshmen expected to see the field did so on Saturday — defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and cornerbacks Lamont Wade and Tariq Castro-Fields.
In all, 15 total players played their first game action in a Penn State uniform.
The Lions’ long-awaited rematch with rival Pitt is set for 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium with ABC carrying the broadcast.
But it will be hard to replicate last September’s 42-39 nailbiter won by the Panthers. Especially after Pitt needed overtime in their own season opener just to survive against FCS Youngstown State, winning 28-21 after a second-half rally by the Penguins.
Pitt is replacing tailback James Conner and quarterback Nathan Peterman while also playing without suspended defensive standout Jordan Whitehead.