Penn State senior tackle Andrew Nelson remembered a Bill O’Brien proverb as he prepped for his first action in 336 days.
“He used to say, ‘Don’t dip your toe in the water,’” Nelson said with a smile.
On Saturday, Nelson tried to abide by those words.
Nelson, who suffered a significant knee injury against Maryland on Oct. 8, 2016, and missed the final eight games of last season, didn’t play in the 2017 season opener against Akron. But the day after Penn State’s 52-0 win over the Zips, Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover asked Nelson how he was feeling. The senior had a straight-forward answer.
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“I said, ‘Coach, I want to get back out there,’” Nelson recalled.
He did just that, playing four series while alternating with starting right tackle Chasz Wright. Nelson’s first series was a six-play, 62-yard drive that ended on a 10-yard touchdown pass to Mike Gesicki, putting the Nittany Lions up 14-0.
“To be a part of a drive again, drive down the field and put it in the end zone was special,” the senior said. “That’s when I was like, man, I miss this.”
Finally contributing meant a lot to Nelson. The 6-foot-6, 305-pounder said he had fun, “something you lose sight of when you’re playing every single down for three straight years.”
Put simply, Nelson was just excited to play football again.
But he knew he couldn’t go at it half-heartedly or take things slow. He had to heed O’Brien’s advice.
“I was trying not to hesitate, not to wonder how I’m going to do,” Nelson said. “Just go out there and play every play like it’s my last. And, fortunately or unfortunately through my seasons, I know what that’s like, that any play could be your last that season. So my plan was just go out, have fun, enjoy it and play every play like it could be my last.”
▪ Nittany Lions punter Blake Gillikin was used six times against Pitt.
The Panthers’ average starting field position following Penn State punts? Their own 13.5-yard line.
“We didn’t win the field position war,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I can guarantee you that.”
No, the Panthers did not win that battle. Penn State’s punt coverage unit was superb.
A consensus first-team All-American last season, Pitt’s Quadree Henderson had zero net yards returning three punts — losses for seven and six yards before evening it up with a 13-yard gain in the third quarter. The Nittany Lions’ coverage team forced Henderson to fair catch two punts and downed another one at the Pitt 4-yard line.
“On special teams, we have the opportunity to change the game at any moment,” Penn State captain Nick Scott said. “I take a lot of pride in that.”
As Scott and the coverage unit should.
▪ Let’s all sit back and appreciate the fact that Mike Gesicki is already close to setting a new single-season school record in just three games.
Yes, three games. You read that correctly.
The single-season Penn State touchdown record for a tight end — which Gesicki tied in 2016 — is five.
Gesicki has four touchdown catches this season after a pair of scores against Akron and Pitt. Having stupid fun with numbers, Gesicki is on-pace for 26 touchdowns in 2017, assuming the Nittany Lions play 13 games with a bowl.
Now, of course, that’s not going to happen. But the New Jersey native setting a new Penn State record next Saturday against Georgia State is absolutely realistic.
Even if he doesn’t, Gesicki’s four-touchdown start should be acknowledged. His four scores would’ve been a team-high in 2011.
Gesicki is the early favorite for the Mackey Award, and it really isn’t close.
▪ Twice, Brent Pry’s unit held firm under duress in the red zone — and it might’ve been a different game if his guys didn’t.
With Penn State leading 14-0 in the second quarter, Pitt’s offense moved 77 yards in five minutes and 11 plays. The Panthers had a first-and-goal from the Penn State 10, were stymied on three straight plays and had to settle for a field goal.
Facing a similar situation up 21-3, Penn State again kept Pitt out of the end zone in the third quarter. The Panthers had a first-and-goal on the 5, but two straight short gains followed by a Manny Bowen hurry brought Pitt placekicker Alex Kessman back to the field.
Theoretically, Pitt would’ve had the ball down only 28-21 with six minutes to go in regulation if it scored touchdowns on those two drives.
Pry’s red zone defense bent but didn’t break in those two situations, and it was crucial to Penn State securing a safe victory.
▪ We had another Brandon Polk sighting.
The speedy redshirt sophomore recorded a nifty 18-yard catch, adjusting in the air and snaring the back-shoulder throw from Trace McSorley.
Polk, who missed 2016 due to injury, has a couple catches on the year now. It’s not much, but it’s more than Saeed Blacknall (zero grabs) and a nice sign from the former jet sweep specialist.
▪ Miles Sanders played only three snaps on Saturday after fumbling on his lone carry.
It has to be difficult being a backup running back — and must be really difficult backing up Saquon Barkley.
But Sanders, a former five-star recruit, isn’t doing himself any favors while competing for snaps with Andre Robinson and Mark Allen.
▪ McSorley finished with three touchdown passes — but his stat line could’ve been better, and he knows it.
Two of McSorley’s first three passing attempts of the game were clear overthrows. He had four total missed wideouts by halftime.
“A lot of that was on me at the beginning,” McSorley said. “I was jittery and my feet weren’t as settled down as they needed to be. I was missing on open throws. I think the emotions of everything coming into today got the best of me.”
McSorley rebounded in the third and fourth quarters. The redshirt junior completed 9 of 13 passes for 120 yards in the second half.
But the 6 of 15 start was less than ideal for McSorley.