STATE COLLEGE — It’s not like it was entirely planned this way. Penn State’s offense is designed to get the ball where the defense isn’t after the snap.
If that means Saquon Barkley doesn’t touch the ball on the first nine plays of the season, well…
“I’m perfectly fine with it,” the Heisman hopeful running back said.
For good reason. By the time Barkley had nine carries himself, he had 145 yards, two touchdowns and nearly a third when a step out of bounds turned an 87-yard score into a mere 80-yard stroll through a vacant Akron defense.
Oh, and a five-touchdown lead at the break that turned into a 52-0 Lions’ mauling of the Zips Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
What started as a dreary late-summer Saturday with steady rain and temperatures just topping 50 turned into an affirmation that No. 6 Penn State could pick up right where it left off last season.
In all, it was 569 yards of total offense to just 159 for Akron. The shutout win was accompanied by 14 tackles for loss. And special teams even kicked in with DeAndre Thompkins’ 61-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“Overall, I thought it was probably the most complete football game we’ve played since we’ve been here,” said Lions coach James Franklin, who opened his fourth season in Happy Valley with his biggest margin of victory. “Offense, defense and special teams.”
Though the game started with a nine-play drive that ended in an end zone interception without Barkley getting a touch, it hardly mattered.
The reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year finished his warm-up game with 14 carries for 172 yards while adding three catches for 54 yards and a 20-yard kickoff return to open the second half.
All-America tight end candidate Mike Gesicki added two touchdowns himself on passes from Trace McSorley, who went 18 for 25 with 280 yards passing, 48 rushing and three total scores.
“We have so many weapons that it’s pick your poison,” Barkley said. “When you have those guys and you believe in each other and get the confidence in each other, a confident team and a confident offense is hard to stop.”
Even some relative newcomers got into the act. Making his first career start, sophomore wideout Juwan Johnson had four catches for a team-best 84 yards.
“It’s just building confidence and realizing that no one can stop me,” Johnson said. “That just has to be the motto. I have to keep that mentality.”
Backup quarterback Tommy Stevens ran for a late touchdown and even caught a pass from McSorley when he lined up in the backfield in Barkley’s usual spot.
“We’ve got some packages for him that you’ll see throughout the year,” Franklin said of Stevens, who elected to stick at Penn State despite McSorley’s emergence last fall.
It all represented the Lions’ continued turnaround as a program. Consider that Penn State’s last game against Akron — Franklin’s first home opener back in 2014 — was a 7-3 contest in the third quarter.
Even last year’s season debut following the arrival of Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator was 16-13 at halftime against Kent State.
One of the players who has seen every bit of the Lions’ transformation is fifth-year senior offensive lineman Brendan Mahon. Penn State got hit with NCAA sanctions the summer before his senior year of high school while he was still a recruit.
“Just (incredible) to see how much this place did turn around from what everyone thought it was,” said Mahon, who played his first game since health issues ended his 2016 season last November. “So you put it in people’s faces, rub it in their face, that this place didn’t fall, and we actually succeeded. We won the Big Ten championship, we went to the Rose Bowl.
“So in the past several years, to see where we’ve come from is amazing.”
No. 6 Penn State 52, Akron 0
Akron`0`0`0`0 — 0
Penn State`14`21`10`7 — 52
PSU — Thompkins 61 punt return (Davis kick), 8:13
PSU — Gesicki 13 pass from McSorley (Davis kick), 0:49
PSU — McSorley 4 run (Davis kick), 8:48
PSU — Barkley 3 run (Davis kick), 4:49
PSU — Barkley 30 run (Davis kick), 0:23
PSU — Davis 47 field goal, 6:01
PSU — Gesicki 2 pass from McSorley (Davis kick), 1:02
PSU — Stevens 5 run (Davis kick), 10:20
Time of Possession`30:30`29:30
RUSHING — UA, K.Nelson 9-39, Ball 13-27, Morgan 3-13, A.Williams 1-7, Sands 1-1, Edwards 5-(minus 2), Woodson 2-(minus 12). PSU, Barkley 14-172, McSorley 12-48, Sanders 1-16, Stevens 4-16, (Team) 1-(minus 2), A.Robinson 2-(minus 3).
PASSING — UA, Woodson 12-23-1-71, K.Nelson 1-2-0-11, Morgan 0-2-0-0, Kelley 1-2-0-4. PSU, McSorley 18-25-1-280, Stevens 3-6-0-42.
RECEIVING — UA, Chapman 3-10, Coney 2-25, K.Smith 2-23, Bickley 2-21, Ball 2-3, Stewart 1-4, N.Williams 1-2, Young 1-(minus 2). PSU, Gesicki 6-58, Ju.Johnson 4-84, Hamilton 3-74, Barkley 3-54, Thompkins 2-29, Pancoast 1-12, Stevens 1-7, Polk 1-4.
MISSED FIELD GOALS — PSU, Davis 39.
A — 101,684. T — 3:25.