Penn State may be a heavy favorite in its season opener against Appalachian State but, if it wants to win big, it still needs to dominate its matchups. Here are the two key matchups to Saturday’s game that we think will determine the outcome.
John McGonigal: Penn State wide receivers vs. Appalachian State secondary
James Franklin said it best at his Tuesday press conference: Appalachian State’s secondary “has done an unbelievable job.” The Mountaineers had 18 interceptions in 2017, three off college football’s leader, Iowa — and their big three in the back are still around.
Clifton Duck — one of eight FBS players with at least five interceptions as a freshman and sophomore since 2000 — spearheads the unit. His six picks and 43.3 opposing quarterback rating when targeted, per Pro Football Focus, led the Sun Belt. Franklin recognized Duck by name on Tuesday, calling him an “extremely productive” player.
Duck is joined by Tae Hayes and Desmond Franklin, who had four and three picks, respectively, last season.
That trio will have its hands full against All-Big Ten talent Juwan Johnson, savvy and speedy DeAndre Thompkins and redshirt freshman KJ Hamler, a.k.a. “The Human Joystick.”
Of course, having Trace McSorley distributing the ball gives Penn State the edge. But don’t sleep on these Appalachian State defensive backs.
Johnson shouldn’t have a problem, but Thompkins, Hamler, Mac Hippenhammer, Brandon Polk and Jahan Dotson will be challenged in Week 1. It’ll be interesting to see how those young guys, namely Hamler, Dotson and Hippenhammer, handle themselves.
Josh Moyer: Penn State linebackers vs. Appalachian State QB Zac Thomas
Look at college football’s biggest upsets, and you’ll see a recurring theme — the underdog’s quarterback had a huge game. Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007? QB Armanti Edwards accounted for four TDs and 78 percent of the offense. Syracuse, a 37-point underdog, over Louisville in 2007? QB Andrew Robinson accounted for every offensive score and had 88 percent of the offense. Forty-five point underdog Howard over UNLV last season? QB Caylin Newton had 190 rushing yards and 73 percent of the offense.
If the Mountaineers have a chance at the huge upset, the offense can’t go through talented running back Jalin Moore. It’s got to be the wildcard, Thomas. And Penn State’s linebackers have to stop him.
Thomas is a dual threat, so the linebackers will have to play disciplined and stay in their lanes. If there is a breakdown, Thomas could make them pay with his legs. In his final 20 high school games, he rushed for 1,966 yards and 16 touchdowns.
As a dual threat and an unknown commodity, he’s not an easy player to prepare for. The redshirt sophomore has attempted just 10 career passes, so Penn State has been forced to watch some of his high school film to ready its defense.
Appalachian State coach Scott Satterfield isn’t dumb — his team has won 30 games the last three years — so he’s going to target Penn State’s linebackers with his new quarterback. How those linebackers react could determine whether fans are wishing for a second-half mercy rule or wishing that Penn State scheduled a different opponent.