STATE COLLEGE — Mark Allen’s season-ending injury came before last week’s game against Illinois. But Miles Sanders was waiting for the biggest stage to pay respect to his fellow running back.
For the first time in his three years at Penn State, Sanders didn’t wear No. 24, instead donning Allen’s No. 8 for Saturday’s game against Ohio State. Shaka Toney also made a similar gesture, wearing the No. 97 of fellow defensive end Ryan Buchholz, who was forced into retirement before the season because of chronic back issues.
Allen, a fifth-year senior, won’t suit up again for the Nittany Lions after suffering an undisclosed injury in the days leading up to the Illinois game. He spent the first three weeks of the season as Sanders’ top backup.
“He’s like the heartbeat of our room,” Sanders said this week. “He brings the personality, he brings the fun, the joy in our room. He cracks jokes, he’s always smiling.
“It sucks for him that his injury ends his season like this, but he’s in great spirits right now.”
Last year, it was defensive end Shareef Miller who wore Torrence Brown’s No. 19 for the win over Iowa after Brown went down with a season-ending injury of his own.
In 2014, defensive back Jordan Lucas and running back Bill Belton wore the numbers of injured teammates Ryan Keiser and Zach Zwinak, respectively, on senior day.
In 2012, Gerald Hodges wore injured linebacker Michael Mauti’s No. 42 and the entire team had 42 on the side of their helmets at the end of an emotional season in which the program was placed under NCAA sanctions following the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
• Second-string quarterback Tommy Stevens made his 2018 debut after dealing with apparent foot injuries that kept him out of spring practice and most of fall camp.
Stevens was introduced on the videoboards as a starter at the “Lion” all-purpose position the team created for him. He touched the ball twice on the opening drive, including taking a lateral from Trace McSorley — but Ohio State had it scouted well and had the deep receiver covered in case of a throw, and the play went nowhere.
A second try at a lateral back to Stevens hit the ground, leading to a 13-yard loss.
• Sophomore defensive end Shane Simmons, who had also been in a walking boot during training camp, suited up for the first time this season.
• Elsewhere on the defensive line, sophomore tackle Ellison Jordan missed his second straight game. Jordan was posting on Twitter earlier in the week about his frustration recovering from a knee injury that he suffered at the end of last season.
With Jordan out and the Lions’ depth at defensive tackle on the thin side, redshirt freshman guard C.J. Thorpe went through warm-ups on defense.
• Cornerback Donovan Johnson was not in uniform after suffering an apparent arm injury last week at Illinois.
The turnout of recruits ended up being at advertised in both quantity and quality.
Lions coach James Franklin said Thursday that the team was hosting 10 official visitors and roughly 175 recruits total. He also estimated that of the 175, 60 were “national recruits with 20 offers or more.”
Among those spotted on the sideline before the game was Ohio defensive lineman Zach Harrison, the Lions’ top-rated target on the board for the upcoming 2019 class. The five-star 6-foot-5, 243-pounder is rated as the nation’s No. 4 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite.
Harrison was on an unofficial visit, having already taken his official visits to Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan, his three finalists.
The crop of juniors on hand looked to be even more impressive, headlined by Maryland defensive lineman Bryan Bresee, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2020 cycle. He was joined by fellow five-star Julian Fleming, the standout junior wide receiver at Southern Columbia. Fleming has been at Beaver Stadium for all three Penn State home games this season.
Five true freshmen who played in the first half on Saturday appeared in their fifth game of the season, formally burning their redshirts for the season. A new NCAA rule allows players to take the field for four games without losing a year of eligibility.
The players who have crossed that threshold are K Rafael Checa, TE Pat Freiermuth, LB Jesse Luketa, LB Micah Parsons and K Jake Pinegear. Freiermuth got his first career start as Jonathan Holland was in uniform but did not play in the first half.
Former Georgia linebacker David Pollack picked the Buckeyes. Michigan Heisman winner Desmond Howard went with the Lions, as did guest picker and James Franklin stunt double Keegan-Michael Key. Ohio State alum Kirk Herbstreit abstained, as he was on the broadcast team for the game.
The twist was saved for the very end of ESPN’s College GameDay show, which was broadcasting live from the Old Main lawn on campus.
Lee Corso called Ohio State his “first sweetheart” because the first mascot head he donned on the show 22 years ago was none other than Brutus Buckeye.
The 83-year-old former coach initially pulled out the head of the Nittany Lion costume, put it above his head but stopped as Herbstreit asked if he was picking Penn State.
After a moment, Corso tossed the thing away, a common strategy for the gimmick. But rather than produce Brutus, he dug out yet another Lion head from underneath the desk.
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse