Miles Sanders peered into the student section and smiled wide as the alma mater rang through Beaver Stadium. He stood just feet from the south end zone goal line, the same stripe of white paint he crossed minutes prior. Sanders’ overtime score not only helped Penn State avoid an Appalachian State upset, but also started a new era in State College.
Sanders stepped out of Saquon Barkley’s shadow. The junior tailback rushed for 91 yards and two scores on 19 carries and recorded three receptions, as well. Sanders’ first touchdown was a 2-yard plunge that put Penn State up 31-14 in the fourth quarter. His second score wasn’t much longer, a 4-yard push. But it gave the Nittany Lions a 45-38 lead in the first leg of overtime, a lead Penn State didn’t give back.
Amani Oruwariye’s interception was the play of the day, and KJ Hamler’s heroics might have saved Penn State’s season. But Sanders deserves credit in staving off the Mountaineers’ robust upset bid.
“Afterwards, he came up to me and said, ‘I’ve waited two years for this.’ And I’m happy for Miles,” head coach James Franklin said. “He was sitting behind Saquon Barkley, maybe the best running back on the planet, and he just kept grinding and working and kept staying positive.”
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Added quarterback Trace McSorley: “Maybe there were times where he bounced it and tried to make too big of a play, but at the same time, that’s who he is, and you can’t coach a guy out of being the athlete that he is. On his touchdowns, he did a great job, especially down at the goal line. Just seeing it and going for it. ... I think he did a great job and really come and answer some questions I think a lot of people had.”
When asked about starting for the first time, Sanders said he didn’t want to “make this about me,” but conceded that his contributions given the circumstances made it “a special moment.”
As Franklin noted, the former five-star talent practiced patience longer than any other highly-touted recruit would. In today’s game when transferring due to lack of early playing time is common, Sanders — the No. 1 running back in the 2016 recruiting class — bided his time.
It paid off in Week 1 — and could set him up for an even better 2018 campaign.
“I think he’s going to have a huge year for us,” Franklin said.
A friendly reminder: The weekly Good, Bad and Ugly shines light on what happened that didn’t receive attention in the CDT’s postgame coverage. Oruwariye’s game-sealing INT, Hamler’s standout performance and the Nittany Lions’ mindset after nearly being upset have already been addressed.
- NFL Network’s Rich Eisen put it best on Twitter. “This McSorley kid has stones.” It wasn’t a perfect day for Penn State’s quarterback, but he did what he’s now become known to do: Step up when the Nittany Lions need him most. At App State’s 15-yard line, down 38-31 with 46 seconds to go in regulation, McSorley faced pressure. Mountaineer linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither and defensive back Josh Thomas blitzed right through Penn State’s occupied offensive line and got in the quarterback’s grill. But McSorley — like Tiger Woods from a fairway bunker — let it rip, finding KJ Hamler in the end zone for the game-tying score. Big Ten Network’s Matt Millen called it a “Heisman play” — and if McSorley does find his way to New York in December, that throw will be on the highlight reel.
- Like Saeed Blacknall’s fourth-down catch at Iowa last year, Brandon Polk’s moment on Saturday night won’t get the recognition it probably deserves. Two plays prior to Hamler’s touchdown catch, the Nittany Lions faced a fourth-and-2. Polk ran a short curl route, finding a soft spot in App State’s zone coverage. McSorley threw a little high, but the redshirt junior hauled it in. Polk may not make a bigger catch in his career.
- The offensive line was lackluster for most of the afternoon, but received a boost when Will Fries took over at right tackle for Chasz Wright. Fries sealed off a linebacker on McSorley’s second touchdown run and did the same on Ricky Slade’s 27-yard touchdown scamper. Fries was on the field for all five touchdown drives between the second half and overtime. Expect him to start at Pitt next week.
- Hat tip to Jake Pinegar, Penn State’s true freshman placekicker. Franklin said the Iowa native was “calm, cool and collected” in his first collegiate game, and there’s no doubt about that. Pinegar made all six extra point attempts and a 32-yard field goal. In these kinds of upset bids, typically it’s a mistake by a young kicker that decides the game. Pinegar, who barely cracked a smile on the sideline prior to overtime, didn’t let anything get to him.
- In the first half, Mark Allen had more offensive touches than Sanders. Saquon Barkley’s successor had only seven carries in the first two quarters due to a running back rotation the Penn State coaches decided on Friday. Franklin said, “No,” when asked if they would have liked to get Sanders more touches early, noting that in Penn State’s RPO system, “It’s hard to say that this guy is going to get this many carries.” But perhaps Penn State remained too firm in its rotation. For example, in a 10-10 game with a minute to go in the second quarter, the Nittany Lions faced a third-and-3 at App State’s 14-yard line. In the short-yardage situation, instead of putting Sanders (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) in the game, they kept Allen (5-foot-6, 184 pounds) in. Allen was stuffed for no gain, and the Nittany Lions had to settle for a field goal. Not ideal.
- DaeSean Hamilton is remembered as Penn State’s all-time leader in receptions. But the one thing Hamilton did so well that flew under the radar was his blocking. And his absence was obvious in that area. As a unit, the Nittany Lion wide receivers struggled mightily to block App State’s corners. At one point, when McSorley scrambled, redshirt freshman Cam Sullivan-Brown stood there and did nothing as a Mountaineer defensive back within an arm’s length of him made the tackle. And it was a hard hit. That can’t happen moving forward.
- In last year’s opener, Mike Gesicki had two touchdown catches. On Saturday, Penn State tight ends Jonathan Holland and Danny Dalton managed three receptions between the two of them. No one was expecting Holland, Dalton or true freshman Pat Freiermuth to dominate the Mountaineers or show Gesicki-esque flashes of unbelievable athleticism. Still, Tyler Bowen’s unit left much to be desired.
- Kevin Givens was suspended for a violation of team rules, Franklin said after the game. Redshirt freshman Fred Hansad was OK starting in his place, but Givens was definitely missed. “We will be better when Kevin starts playing for us,” the coach said. He didn’t indicate if the defensive tackle would be available for next week’s tilt.
- Juwan Johnson is a special talent, but the redshirt junior dropped an easy first-down conversion in the first half and made a more glaring error late in the fourth quarter. With 3:30 to go in a 31-31 game on Penn State’s own 5-yard line, Johnson ran a double-move in single man coverage, and McSorley uncorked a 40-yard heave his way. The throw was on the money, but it slipped right through Johnson’s hands. The wideout had a nice series to start the second half with three catches for 40 yards leading to a McSorley touchdown run. But outside of that, it was a disappointing day for Johnson.
- Franklin was not happy with Penn State’s special teams. “Early in the season like that, we have typically been pretty good,” the coach said, “but obviously we weren’t.” The Nittany Lions allowed a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown in the first quarter, as Darrynton Evans split the coverage and Ayron Monroe and John Petrishen whiffed on their tackle attempts. Penn State was also fooled by a fourth-quarter onside kick, which App State used to tie the score at 31.
- Through three quarters, Penn State’s defense held App State to a field goal and five punts. In the fourth quarter, the Nittany Lions allowed 11 first downs, 28 points and 266 yards. Some credit should go to App State quarterback Zac Thomas, who impressed in his first career start. But it was telling that safeties Garrett Taylor and Nick Scott combined for 17 tackles, 11 of which were solo stops. From a lack of a pass rush to confused reactions in the secondary, Penn State’s defense was not on the same page. Even in overtime, Franklin was forced to call timeout when the Mountaineers were on offense. The Nittany Lions weren’t lined up correctly, and if Thomas got the snap off, his slot receiver would have been uncovered. Franklin said the defense’s “inexperience showed up a few times.” It was more than a few times. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry will be tasked with re-evaluating and making the necessary corrections before playing Pitt.