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Penn State Football: Handing Out The Grades As Penn State Wins 45-38

by on September 02, 2018 10:00 AM

These things were a lot easier when Penn State was just beating the hell out of people the past two years.

But predictably Saturday's season opening win over Appalachian State wasn't short on bumps and hiccups that turned what seemed to be a comfortable second half victory in overtime survival. The Mountaineers had a pretty good claim to being the better overall team, but Penn State had Trace McSorley and KJ Hamler and that was just enough to get the job done.

In truth this is a hard game to grade in some respects because everyone looked bad at some point and everyone looked good at some point. It just comes down to the timing.

Offense: B-

It's hard to knock 45 points, and 434 yards of offense, that ought to be more than enough to beat just about anyone, and yet it nearly wasn't. If there is a reason to be critical of this unit it was the little things. Juwan Johnson had a surprising case of the drops, the offensive line seemed a little confused and inconsistent at times and in general the offense didn't seem to have the same operational confidence of the past two years. Receiver blocking down field also left something to be desired.

Maybe that was to be expected, but with Trace McSorley at the helm it seemed like he could guide them through things anyway. And in fairness he did that when the absolutely needed him to. His two rushing TDs and a strike to KJ Hamler late in the game was the steady hand the offense needed. He won't be able to do it alone forever, but in a lot of ways he singlehandedly beat App State on Saturday.

Despite the drops Johnson did lead the team with six catches, and a collective of running backs churned out 204 yards on the ground.

This group will need to look more cohesive in the future but it was the second most points scored in a James Franklin season opener and third most yards. End of the day for all the bumps, it wasn't the offense that made Saturday heartburn central for Penn State fans.

Defense: C-

Penn State's defense deserves a little bit of credit for playing pretty well in the middle third of the game on both sides of the half. With the offense sputtering this group did enough to prevent the Nittany Lions from falling behind and helped a third quarter surge by the offense turn into a 14-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. Those are odds you're going to take pretty frequently in Beaver Stadium.

But goodness did it stop there. App State putting up 28 fourth quarter points and coming a Trace McSorley away from winning the game in regulation. By the end of the night this group had gotten gashed on the ground and through the air. In fairness the Mountaineers played well in their own right, and some of the big plays they had wouldn't have seemed as alarming if Ohio State was doing them against Penn State. 

Nevertheless the question marks are still all over the place. The defensive line is a collection of a lot of names and not a ton of answers. Linebackers are out there but even Micah Parsons looked the part of a freshman playing a new position for the first time. App State actually out-gained Penn State with 451 yards of offense with what felt like 400 of those yards coming after contact.

As just mentioned Penn State's tackling left something to be desired, a homage to 2014 and 2015. For all of his mental abilities even the returning John Reid was prone to looking for the big hit not the big tackle. The good news for fans, these are issues that can get fixed. It's not a talent issue as much as an attention to details one.

End of the day this group did just enough to win, and that counts for something, but this defense has some work to do.

Special Teams: C+

In the grand scheme of this game including everyone scoring a ton of points, an early 100-yard kickoff return by App State is almost forgettable, but it was a good early reminder that the visitors weren't phased by the stage. Rafael Checa had solid kickoffs, Blake Gillikin maybe wasn't at his best but his 43 average and 55 long wasn't exactly a bad afternoon either.

The return and App State's onside kick that Penn State never saw coming hurt this grade.

But the good news, there is Jake Pinegar who probably wanted to ease into the who college football thing and then found himself looking down the barrel of a game-tying and/or game-losing extra point attempt. He made it, along with four others, but it's safe to say he wasn't expecting such a dramatic debut. His 32-yard field goal earlier in the game was solid as well.

KJ Hamler only had one return over the course of the game and he made the most of it going 52-yards after taking a good 10 seconds to decide if he actually wanted to return it. A little bit more decisiveness from him would be a plus, but it was his first game so it's hard to blame him constantly contemplating taking it out instead of kneeling it.

DeAndre Thompkins had a 29-yard punt return but was otherwise resigned to fair catches.

All in all this group did its job and was key in being at least one phase of the team that seemed the least prone to mistakes. The TD return and onside kick hurts the grade but we can chalk that up to early season brain farts and not critical system failure. This group did more good than bad at the end of the day.

Overall: C

When it was all said and done each unit had moments of good and moments of bad. Penn State probably should have lost, but still found a way to win. In the end that's all that matters. There is work to be done all over the place, but that's not necessarily something we didn't already know.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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