For openers, Lions raise their share of questions

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State opened its season with a wildly-entertaining 45-38 overtime victory Saturday over Appalachian State which anyone who witnessed had to enjoy.

Well, almost anyone.

“I started the game at 46 years old,” James Franklin said afterward. “I ended it at 51.”

The Nittany Lions showed flashes of being a quality team — their defense didn’t allow a touchdown for the game’s first three quarters, and after halftime their offense again showed its quick-strike magic — but it was far from a dominant performance.

Especially from a team predicted by some as a contender for the College Football Playoff.

Franklin was right to “give all the credit” to Appalachian State, which came here as a four-touchdown underdog, but played with tremendous heart and came within a play of leaving with one of the biggest upsets in Beaver Stadium history.

As a team on the rise in the Sun Belt Conference, App State is going to win a lot of games again this year. But is Penn State?

Franklin felt the offense “looked really good at times, but other times we played like a young team. Same with our defense.”

And he was justifiably critical of the special teams, which allowed a 100-yard kickoff return to suck the momentum right out of the stadium after the Lions drove down the field on the game’s first possession to take a 7-0 lead.

As a capper, despite being warned, the Nits’ return unit was slow to react on App State’s onside kick with 7:39 remaining that allowed the Mountaineers to tie the game at 31.

Though up by 24-10 at the end of the third quarter and 31-17 with 11:17 left — with some probably eyeing their early break to the parking lot — the Lions completely collapsed defensively and allowed 28 fourth-quarter points.

“We have to be better in coverage,” Franklin understated.

It’s tough to fathom actually winning a game in which you allow four touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but the Lions did.

Of course, it helps to have Trace McSorley, maybe Penn State’s most clutch player of all time, at quarterback.

Just as he’s done from the moment he took over for Christian Hackenberg in 2015, McSorley brought the Lions back when they needed him most.

His fourth-down pass to Brandon Polk kept alive a game-tying touchdown drive, capped with a touchdown pass to K.J. Hamler that knotted the game at 38 with 42 seconds left.

“Obviously,” Franklin said, “having a quarterback like Trace McSorley with the game on the line helps.”

The defense has been lost numerous players over the summer to injury (Ryan Buchholz and Torrence Brown), inexplicability (Manny Bowen) and recent discipline actions (Kevin Givens, Shane Simmons), and clearly that factored in Saturday.

Though the Lions subbed early and often with younger players, they were torched by App State’s passing game that was well schemed and precise.

“We started off all right and kind of shut them down,” linebacker Jan Johnson, a non-scholarship player somehow starting, said. “We just have to finish and play a full game. They kind of swung momentum. I don’t think we were tired. We just got out of place.”

Meanwhile, the offense, aside from its first drive, sputtered in the first half under new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. The Lions converted just two of nine opportunities on third or fourth down in the first half.

“We were a little antsy and off target,” Juwan Johnson, who was a bigger factor in the second half, said. “We came out and we were resilient, and we did what we had to do to pull off a win.”

Resilient they were. Franklin made a point after the game to remind his team that they should celebrate the wins and not mope about the less-than-impressive performances that still result in victory.

But, he added, “we’ll critique the heck out of this thing tomorrow (Sunday),” Franklin said.

And he’ll also keep his eye on the big picture.

“When you have a good season,” he said, “there’s always a game like that. When we look back at the end of the year, this will be a key will for us.”

And old coaching legend who used to roam these parts had many sayings, but one of them was that a team made its biggest improvement from the first to the second game of the season.

After its opener — 1-0 vs. almost 0-1 — this year’s Penn State team has put itself in perfect position to test that theory.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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