Eye on the prize: Penn State set to open 2018 season

By Derek Levarse - [email protected]
Miles Sanders will make his first career start for Penn State on Saturday against Appalachian State. - Abby Drey | AP photo, Centre Daily Times

Appalachian State has earned the spotlight at Beaver Stadium before.

Saturday will be the first time the Mountaineers will play at Penn State. But in another season-opener 11 years ago, the small program from Boone, N.C., was the most interesting part of the afternoon in Happy Valley.

The Nittany Lions had opened their 2007 campaign with a methodical 59-0 demolition of Florida International. But the fans that actually stuck around for the whole game ended up staying inside the stadium — and not to discuss the Lions.

This being before the proliferation of smartphones, hundreds of spectators gathered in the concourses looking for one of the TVs that was still showing the Big Ten Network, which had just came on the air for the first time two days earlier.

Those fans got to watch the end of one of college football’s biggest upsets as Appalachian State, then the top-ranked FCS team in the country, blocked a field goal on the final play of the game to upset No. 5 Michigan 34-32 at the Big House.

History or no, as Penn State prepares to face the Mountaineers in Saturday’s opener, even the oldest Lions players were still in grade school when that game was played.

“We won’t show (video from the 2007 game) to them,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “But I will talk about it with them. This is a team that has played really well on the road. I know that was a long time ago and a previous staff. But even recently, they’ve done a good job.”

It would indeed be a disservice to the current Mountaineers players and coaches to focus solely on that Michigan game.

App State alum Scott Satterfield has since taken over for program legend Jerry Moore as head coach. And in his first five years, he has shepherded the Mountaineers from the FCS to the FBS ranks and succeeded. The team enters 2018 once again as one of the favorites to win the Sun Belt Conference.

At 36-9 in their last 45 games, the Mountaineers rank among the national leaders in winning percentage over that time.

And they’re not afraid of a hostile environment.

THREE AND OUT

Road warriors

Last year they went between the hedges at Georgia, holding their own in the first half. A few weeks later, they were lining up for a winning field goal at Wake Forest, only to have it blocked.

In 2016, it was more than a scare that the Mountaineers threw into Tennessee in Knoxville, taking the Volunteers to overtime before falling short.

They’ve also been to three straight bowl games as an FBS member and won them all.

All of this has been pretty well pounded into Penn State players’ heads the past week.

“This week the only thing we’re thinking about is Appalachian State,” defensive tackle Robert Windsor said. “That’s the only thing that matters — this week. You can talk about championships all you want, but none of that matters if we don’t win this week.”

Both defenses have a pretty good idea of what to see from the other side. The Lions and Mountaineers both run a read-based offense that will go no-huddle but not at a hyper tempo, instead getting to the line and doing a check-with-me to the sideline to adjust the play based on the defense.

App State, however, will lean much more toward the run game than Penn State, especially with Zac Thomas making his first career start at quarterback. And that figures to be one of the biggest disparities of the game when compared to Trace McSorley opening his third season as the Lions’ starters.

“If the play’s breaking down, (McSorley) can go make those plays and get the ball in the hands of those playmakers,” Satterfield said. “They utilize his legs quite a bit. That’s what separates him from a lot of players. He’s very tough to defend. … I think he’s the catalyst for everything they do offensively.”

Battle of the backs

Rated as the nation’s No. 1 running back in the 2016 recruiting class, Miles Sanders has been waiting more than two years to get his shot.

Understandably, the Penn State junior has been asked about Saquon Barkley once or twice in the lead-up to his first start for the Lions.

“Yup,” Sanders said. “Every interview.”

And that was at the start of training camp.

Saturday will be his first chance to start making a name for himself. And odds are that — at the start of the year, at least — defenses won’t be keying on him to the same extremes that Barkley faced.

“Right now he’s the guy,” running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said. “He can put his nerves to ease and know that he doesn’t have to make a big play on every play now. Because limited reps you have to force things. He can get into a rhythm and flow.

“We’re pretty good up front, so I just need Miles to go be Miles Sanders.”

In the other backfield lies arguably the Mountaineers’ best player, reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year Jalin Moore.

“He’s a home-run hitter,” Franklin said. “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. … If you’re not sound, if you’re not in your gap, if you’re not gap responsible or overpursue, he’s a guy that can stick his foot in the ground and go 80 at any point.”

Freshman focus

It was the best possible time for Penn State to sign its highest-rated recruiting class of the 21st century.

With the new redshirt rules allowing players to appear in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility, look for the Lions to throw their talented rookies right into the deep end on Saturday and again in two weeks against Kent State.

Seven have already been identified as guys who will likely play the entire season, barring setbacks — K Rafael Checa, TE Pat Freiermuth, LB Jesse Luketa, DT PJ Mustipher, LB Micah Parsons, K Jake Pinegar and RB Ricky Slade.

Wideout Justin Shorter likely would have been on the list for sure if not for an injury during camp that may keep him out in the early going. But fellow wideout Jahan Dotson, who led the team in touchdowns during camp, will likely get a look. Defensive ends Nick Tarburton and Jayson Oweh may get their feet wet as well.

If the Lions have a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter, it wouldn’t be a surprise if close to a dozen true freshman play Saturday in all.

Miles Sanders will make his first career start for Penn State on Saturday against Appalachian State.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/web1_AP18242016234971.jpgMiles Sanders will make his first career start for Penn State on Saturday against Appalachian State. Abby Drey | AP photo, Centre Daily Times

By Derek Levarse

[email protected]

PSU GAMEDAY

Appalachian State

at No. 10 Penn State

3:30 p.m. today

Beaver Stadium

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: PSU by 24