Kent State’s visit to Happy Valley on Saturday will be the first season-opening home game for Penn State since 2012, when it hosted Ohio at Beaver Stadium in the first game of Bill O’Brien’s tenure.
That afternoon did not progress as planned.
Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton and the Bobcats rolled up 499 yards against a shaky Nittany Lions defense, while on the other side, Matt McGloin and the Penn State offense failed to score a single point in the second half en route to a humbling 24-14 defeat.
That malaise bled into the following week against Virginia, when Penn State’s red zone attack sputtered and the Nittany Lions dropped a 17-16 decision against the Cavaliers after freshman kicker Sam Ficken missed four field goals and an extra point attempt.
It’s hard to imagine this year’s team getting jumped like that by a Golden Flashes group that finished 3-9 last season and is a 22-point underdog. But with a schedule that in the following three weeks takes Penn State through Pittsburgh for a meeting 16 years in the making with the rival Panthers, back home for a revenge game against Temple, then to Ann Arbor to take on No. 7 Michigan, Saturday needs to be about more than just avoiding another humiliation.
This is Penn State’s one opportunity to build some momentum before things get hairy.
That 2012 team famously went on to find its sea legs, rattling off five consecutive wins after that fateful day in Charlottesville on its way to an 8-4 season, including a 6-2 Big Ten record. Those next four games, though, were against Navy, a lesser Temple, Illinois and Northwestern, all teams Penn State had reasonable expectations of beating without too much trouble.
The 2016 squad will receive no such chance to breathe. It’s Saturday and then a meat grinder that doesn’t let up until at least Oct. 1, when inconsistent Minnesota — 6-7 a year ago — visits Beaver Stadium. But even that might not be as easy as it looks, because a few people — including ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit — think Minnesota can win the Big Ten West.
That’s a daunting stretch for a team that has undergone a lot of changes since last season and will have inexperience in some crucial positions. Week 1 becomes hugely important.
With that in mind, here are the four most important ways the Nits can inspire confidence against the Golden Flashes.
Get a push
Penn State’s problems have pretty much started and finished with the offensive line since James Franklin took over in 2014, so an improvement on the 10 sacks allowed in last year’s opener against Temple is critical and low-hanging fruit.
Beyond that, new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s up-tempo offense is designed to wear out opponents. So the end of both halves will be a critical window into how that might work on the tougher opponents down the road.
If you see Kent State defenders — who were actually pretty solid last year, finishing third in the MAC in total defense — huffing, puffing and taking bad angles on tackles, then you know Penn State’s hogs aren’t just pushing inferior opponents back by brute force but exhausting their will to compete, too. The latter is a better sign of strength for when the competition stiffens.
And don’t get pushed
It’s almost become a Penn State tradition to have a new face break out on the defensive line every September. Last year, it was Carl Nassib. In 2014, Anthony Zettel stormed onto the scene. On and on. So there’s reason for optimism as Evan Schwan, Kevin Givens and Parker Cothren look to replace those guys now in the NFL.
A fast start will be more of a necessity this year, though, because Pitt will deploy an experienced offensive line next week. The degree to which Penn State can negate that advantage will probably go a long way in determining the outcome, so penetrating Kent’s front early and often will be a good indicator of how prepared Penn State is for the Panthers.
Show command at quarterback
Trace McSorley is going to make mistakes early in the season. Not only will he be starting college games for the first time, but he will be doing it in an offense that sounds pretty complicated to pick up. So don’t look for him — or his unit for that matter — to be flawless.
Do look at how he bounces back from those mistakes. Confident body language will rub off on his teammates and go a long way toward preventing bad plays from becoming bad drives and poor throws from becoming poor habits. For an offense that has looked dazed even with a veteran like Christian Hackenberg in there the past couple of years, McSorley establishing a strong voice in that huddle is key.
Walk before running
Speaking of Moorhead’s up-tempo game plan that has been described within and without Lasch Building in increasingly grandiose terms this offseason, let’s just see it string some drives together first.
Speed is fun, and this space likes fun. But we are talking about a group that has over the past two years struggled to execute simple rollouts and screens; that has had tight ends dropping very catchable balls; and that has given up sacks to two-man rushes.
Simply moving the ball consistently on Saturday will be a step in the right direction. Not every drive is going to produce points, and that’s fine. Even drives of 20 and 30 yards before punts would have saved the Nits a lot of field position grief last season, and will give a lot of people encouragement if they’re the norm against Kent State.