Penn State Football

Penn State avoids stunner to upset-minded Appalachian State in 45-38 season opener

Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye celebrates his interception for the Nittany Lions, who beat Appalachian State in overtime Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State cornerback Amani Oruwariye celebrates his interception for the Nittany Lions, who beat Appalachian State in overtime Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 at Beaver Stadium. adrey@centredaily.com

On the 11-year anniversary of Appalachian State’s monumental upset of Michigan, Penn State refused to fall victim to another Mountaineer stunner. The No. 9-ranked Nittany Lions held off a fourth-quarter Mountaineer rally, pushing past Appalachian State 45-38 on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium. Amani Oruwariye snagged an end zone interception in OT to clinch the win.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley’s 28-game streak with at least one touchdown pass continued. The fifth-year senior completed 21 of 36 passes for 230 yards and added 53 rushing yards. The Nittany Lions’ running backs — Miles Sanders, Ricky Slade and Mark Allen — combined for a solid showing with 154 total yards on 30 carries. Sanders scored the game-winner in the first leg of overtime, a four-yard push past the goal line.

Despite a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit, the Mountaineers weren’t trampled or scared of Penn State. The 24-point underdogs were tied with the Nittany Lions at halftime and took them to overtime, thanks in large part to quarterback Zac Thomas. The sophomore, making his first career start, completed 25 of 38 passes for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about overcoming adversity after the season opener against Appalachian State at Beaver Stadium.

Player of the game

KJ Hamler: Sanders would be an understandable pick here, too. The redshirt junior — in his first start out of Saquon Barkley’s shadow — scored the game-winner.

But it was Hamler who, when the Nittany Lions seemed dead, brought Beaver Stadium back to life. With less than two minutes left in regulation, down 38-31 to the Mountaineers, Hamler fielded Appalachian State’s kickoff, hesitated, and to a rising cheer brought the ball out of Penn State’s end zone. Hamler bolted up the home sideline for 52 yards, electrifying the bench and fans alike.

A minute later, on second-and-9 with 50 seconds to go, McSorley — with the poise of a fifth-year senior — delivered a game-tying strike to his redshirt freshman target.

Turning point

Oruwariye’s walkoff: What an ending. Amani Oruwariye — who led the Nittany Lions in interceptions last season — made the play that possibly saved Penn State’s season.

On first-and-10 from the Nittany Lions’ 15-yard line, in overtime, Thomas targeted 6-foot-3 wideout Corey Sutton. Thomas, who was stellar all afternoon, threw a catchable ball, but Oruwariye — caught behind the receiver — reached over Sutton and wrestled it away.

Unsung hero

Jan Johnson: The walk-on middle linebacker “earned that starting position” — and he earned the respect of Penn State’s fans on Saturday.

Johnson was there at every turn, leading the Nittany Lions with 11 tackles, 4 of which were solo stops.

Yetur Gross-Matos impressed, at one point swallowing Thomas with his 6-foot-5, 259-pound frame. Heralded true freshman Micah Parsons also showed off his knack for the football with 4 tackles and a fumble recovery on a first-half squib kick.

But, after an offseason of doubting Penn State’s middle linebacker situation, Johnson deserves mention here.

Underrated moment

Slade’s scamper: Welcome to the show, rookie. True freshman running back Ricky Slade looked like a five-star talent, bursting through the heart of Appalachian State’s defense for a 27-yard touchdown run — the first of his career.

Slade, who earned praise from James Franklin this past week for his “little subtle moves,” was straight-forward as he could be with 2:45 left in the third quarter. Slade corralled the handoff from McSorley, and offensive tackle Will Fries pulled and kicked out a Mountaineer linebacker bearing down on the line of scrimmage, giving the freshman a crease. That’s all Slade needed. The No. 1 running back in the 2018 recruiting class shot through the middle of Appalachian State’s defense and split Mountaineer defensive backs Clifton Duck and Austin Eckford to reach the end zone.

It was an important moment, as Slade’s dash put the Nittany Lions up 24-10. And in a vacuum, it was something for the freshman — who could “make a move” up Penn State’s depth chart — to build on.

Up next

Pitt week: After a scare against Appalachian State, the Nittany Lions head down US-22 West to face Pittsburgh. The Panthers, a projected fringe bowl team in 2018, opened their campaign with a convincing win over FCS contender Albany. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett was efficient, completing all 13 passes for 129 yards and two scores in the first half alone. Pickett and the Panthers — early two-touchdown underdogs — will look to upset Penn State when the two squads meet at 8 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field.

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