It was an odd sight — a Heisman Trophy contender returning a kickoff in the second half of a 35-point blowout.
Fans were perplexed, while the ESPN announcers themselves were puzzled.
But, even in retrospect, James Franklin doesn’t regret the decision to have Saquon Barkley field the third quarter’s opening kickoff on Saturday against Akron.
That was the plan all along.
“We had it scheduled that he was going to return the first kick of the game. That’s what we decided to do,” Franklin said at his Tuesday press conference. “We didn’t get a first kick of the game until the second half.”
Penn State won the coin toss and deferred to the second half. Akron received the opening kickoff and couldn’t get anything going. The Zips punted six times and threw an interception before halftime.
Even though the Nittany Lions were up by 35, Franklin and his staff stuck to their original plan and had Barkley back on kickoff return.
The running back himself didn’t mind it; Barkley said after the game that he’d block on punt coverage if the Nittany Lions needed him to.
Well, Franklin won’t be using his star back in that scenario — but fully expect Barkley to see more chances to return kicks.
“I know everybody keeps talking about that they felt like the game was in hand,” Franklin said. “Well, if anybody watched college football this weekend, I don’t know if you necessarily could say that. I’m very comfortable with that, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Monroe ready to play
When asked if safety Ayron Monroe will be available to play against Pitt on Saturday, Franklin had a short and simple answer: “Correct.”
The coach didn’t elaborate on that further, but it’s clear Monroe is expected to make his season debut in a few days.
The Maryland native was dressed but did not see the field in Penn State’s season opener against Akron — a game in which 60 Nittany Lions got reps.
Monroe, a redshirt sophomore, lost a battle for the starting strong safety job to Troy Apke in fall camp. He figures to be in the safety rotation and contribute on special teams.
There were more Nittany Lions that played on Saturday than points scored, but one player in particular that stood out to Franklin was defensive tackle Tyrell Chavis.
Chavis, who had 13 tackles and just one tackle for loss in 2016, tripled that TFL total against the Zips. The senior interior lineman’s three tackles for loss led the Nittany Lions, and his five total tackles was tied for the team-high.
Franklin called Chavis “explosive” and used him as an example at the team’s Sunday film session.
“I pull out about six plays a game that I show,” Franklin said, “and he had a couple plays where he just took the center and drove the center back five yards into the backfield. I don’t care what offense you’re running. If the nose guard takes the center and drives him five yards back in the backfield, I don’t care what you’re doing, you’re going to have a hard time being successful.”
Players of the week
Each week, Franklin and his coaching staff dole out their version of weekly awards — and surprisingly, Barkley didn’t get any honors.
Instead, the offensive player of the week went to a group of guys: Penn State’s linemen.
Franklin singled out right guard Brendan Mahon, who was back starting after missing the final five games of 2016. He and his fellow linemen guided the Nittany Lions to 569 yards of total offense and didn’t allow a single sack on 31 passing attempts.
Defensively, Ryan Buchholz — four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack and forced fumble — was honored, while DeAndre Thompkins took the special teams nod for his 61-yard punt return touchdown.