The Nittany Lions showed a recapturing of some of their 2016 magic Saturday night, looking to be noticed in a storied program that fell from grace not so long ago. They played a hard-nosed game, with no need to wave the magic-wand – completely dominating from the outset against a determined TTUN. In a messy and miraculous romp, with, naturally an occasional gaffe, the Nittany Lions only had such gaffes unfold into bigger and better plays than the previous ones. It all now comes down to Penn State and their merry bunch of gladiators heading into their biggest game ever under the young Franklin era – Columbus next weekend.
Before a white blanket of 110,823, the largest crowd ever at Beaver Stadium, Penn State upended Michigan 42-13, capping a day-long campus celebration. With ESPN’S Game Day on site for the first time since 2009, and a town on a major bender, the Nations’ 2nd ranked team had every reason to feel overwhelmed by the moment.
Instead, the Lions (7-0) launched out of the tunnel to 14 points on six plays, blipped for a few moments against Michigan’s defense, then recalibrated to score the most points against the Wolverines all season.
Now, Penn State heads to Columbus, where the Nation’s 6th ranked The Ohio State University for the Big Ten’s marquee game of 2017. The winner of this one will most likely be heading for the Big Ten Championship and, possibly, the College Football Playoff (?). There’s plenty to organize here, which might have played a part in Saquon Barkley’s restless pair of pass plays.
Penn State hasn’t opened up the breathless collection of deep throws this season, largely because of the defensive approaches they faced. Last week, Head Coach James Franklin and his players all bowed reverently to Michigan’s man-to-man coverage, calling that one of the factors they would have to break from.
In the third quarter, Barkley shot directly past coverage and had a beat on the end zone, before which he juggled a pass for two steps until finally, dramatically, pulling it in. That book-ended nicely the drop he had earlier on a wide-open routine route; coming down to the way Penn State’s offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead got the most of his players, freeing them, and taking chances when needed.
Taking their head coach’s suggestion that offensive wrinkles were forthcoming, Penn State introduced them right away. On its first series, Barkley took a direct snap for a 69-yard touchdown, the longest play against Michigan this season.
Barkley took several more direct snaps, and scored his second touchdown on an option toss from quarterback Trace McSorley. He became the first Penn State player, and fourth in Big Ten history, with 3,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards.
Despite the start, Penn State needed McSorley to calm his over- extended pulse, which led to a series of high passes and the first half’s biggest momentum change. Defensive back David Long collected an easy sideline interception when McSorley and tight end Mike Gesicki seemed to straddle the wrong play. McSorley later was nearly intercepted in his own end zone.
But with McSorley, Penn State knows it has a quarterback who does not lack confidence. He saved a potential touchdown by tracking down Long, then willed himself back into the game.
After his difficult stretch (he was 7-for-15 at one point) McSorley led Penn State on a critical seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to close out the first half. The drive offered several reminders of 2016: a deep throw to DaeSean Hamilton, who had a huge game, and a contested sideline catch by Mike Gesicki, who toed the chalk for a third-down conversion in the red zone.
McSorley then capped the series with a 3-yard touchdown run, giving the Lions a 21-13 lead that shot them into the second half. McSorley scored twice more, generating a few Barkley-esque cuts on one run and bulling into the end zone on another. He made a critical third-down run, lowered his throws to the numbers and played a pretty exceptional second half.
The highlight came in the fourth quarter, when McSorley looked for Barkley once more. The running back was wide open with end zone before him, but once again couldn’t make a clean catch.
This time, though, Barkley regained his eyes and collected the ball after a few personal tip drills, which led him to unleash a guttural celebration.
Penn State’s offense had spent the season taking advantage of lightweight or one-eyed defenses determined not to let Barkley beat them. McSorley gladly took the openings that were afforded.
Michigan, though, appeared to bring no such weaknesses. The Wolverines led the nation in total defense and brought a defensive line that suggested terror for McSorley. At points, Michigan did rattle Penn State. But, at the right time, the Nittany Lions reminded everyone how they can light up a moment – and do so quickly.
In the fourth quarter, after McSorley’s third touchdown run, Penn State’s student section began chanting, “We want Bama.” Surely it was something Ohio State noticed and will discuss before their game next week at Ohio Stadium. We shall see.