Have Penn State fans gotten as excited over a punter as they did in Saturday’s 33-13 win against Kent State?
Freshman Blake Gillikin stepped on the field at Beaver Stadium for the first time after his team went three-and-out on its first series, and executed a gorgeous 49-yard punt for no Kent State return.
The crowd went nuts — they even gave Gillikin, just 18 years old, a standing ovation.
“I didn’t know he got a standing ovation, but thank you,” said head coach James Franklin. “Thank you everybody for doing that, reinforcing a positive, that’s good. ... I was trying to kind of temper expectations a little bit although he showed that (in camp).”
He went out just minutes later after the team’s second straight three-and-out and punted for 44 yards for a 3-yard return, and finished with six punts for a 47-yard average, a 58-yard long and plenty of hang time. Last season, Penn State averaged only 35.7 yards per punt between two players, and struggled with placement and hang time.
▪ Penn State’s new offense and new coordinator Joe Moorhead certainly didn’t show their entire hand against Kent State. In fact, according to receiver Chris Godwin, only “maybe 50 or 60” percent of the playbook was utilized.
“I think there’s a lot of stuff we can put in game by game,” he added.
In all but a few end-of-game plays, the same three-wide receiver sets (plus tight end Mike Gesicki) were used, with DaeSean Hamilton lined up inside in the slot and Saeed Blacknall and Godwin out wide.
Godwin finished the game with seven catches for 67 yards on 12 targets by quarterback Trace McSorley, for a 9.6 yards per catch average. But most impressive was Godwin’s footwork and athleticism on a few catches — a toe-drag to stay in-bounds on a 26-yarder, and an impressive layout for a first down.
▪ It was McSorley’s first start, but aside from an underthrow of Gesicki and an overthrow of Godwin (the receiver was called for offensive pass interference anyway), one would hardly know it.
The redshirt sophomore stayed composed enough to force his unit into a rhythm on its third series after the first two went three-and-out, and finished the game 16 for 31 with 209 yards and two touchdowns, including a 43-yard bomb to DeAndre Thompkins for both players’ career longs in pass and catch, respectively.
▪ It became clear all spring and fall that Penn State’s deep, athletic secondary has plenty of personality and energy. But the unit put words to action on Saturday, combining for 30 of 81 total tackles and finishing the game with a forced fumble and recovery by Marcus Allen (Malik Golden also added pressure) and pick-six by Amani Oruwariye, the first for the team since 2014.
“I thought Marcus Allen played really well, I thought John Reid played really well and obviously Amani made a big play for us,” said Franklin. “Christian Campbell did some nice things, Malik Golden did some nice things and we feel good about our depth and experience in the secondary.”
▪ Penn State’s 258-pound kicker, Joey Julius, is in this category if only because he showed that he’s a bad, bad man with one massive hit on Kent State’s 155-pound returner, Kavious Price. Julius ran through his kickoff in the second quarter and absolutely leveled Price, who is still likely out at Beaver Stadium looking for his teeth.
“I don’t even think (Joey) knew he hit him,” laughed defensive end Garrett Sickels.
▪ Chunk rushing plays plagued Penn State’s first two defensive tiers on Saturday.
Kent State had just two explosive passing plays (15-plus yards), but eight chunk-run plays (10-plus yards) from either their mobile quarterbacks or running backs.
The most interesting of the above was a “swinging gate” trick formation used by the Golden Flashes for a 16-yard gain. Other than the quarterback, center and one outside receiver, who lined up in the middle of the field, the entirety of the offense lined up on the left hashmark as the Nittany Lions defense followed suit.
Penn State not only didn’t call a timeout to adjust, but the defense was confused and Kent State got the first down on the ground as quarterback Justin Agner rushed to the right. Ultimately, the first-quarter drive resulted in a field goal.
▪ Penn State was on its own 31-yard line in the second quarter when the old offensive line issues flared up. Redshirt junior left tackle Brendan Mahon got absolutely blown over by Kent State pass rusher Terence Waugh, and McSorley got sacked on his blind side and fumbled the ball. It was recovered by Golden Flash linebacker Elcee Refuge, who ran it back for a touchdown.
In the third quarter, running back Saquon Barkley punched in his second touchdown of the day, but it was called back after a false start by right tackle Andrew Nelson.