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Penn State Football: Nittany Lions' Win The Sum Of All Fears And Hopes

by on September 01, 2018 9:55 PM

For Penn State it was the sum of all fears.

A fear that this team wasn't like the others.

A fear not to be ignored.

Because Penn State entered the season with high hopes and expectations but also saddled with an undeniable truth. That this team is rocketing forward on a wave of momentum that it did not create, expected to surf a tsunami of emotions and challenges with the deftness of veterans while having little experience doing so.

If you thought the loss of a generational player, a talented offensive coordinator, nearly an entire defense and a certain level of confidence could result in a rocky season, Saturday was proof of just that, and maybe not even a surprise. A team that had gotten somewhere via -at least in part- someone else.

If you needed a reminder of this you could find it before the game ever began. A weekly introduction on the Beaver Stadium scoreboard announcing starters at every position, a roaring cheer following in the wake of each name.

Except on Saturday it was a polite applause. This wasn't a reunion but an introduction of new names to know, new faces to remember. Save the likes of Juwan Johnson, Trace McSorley, DeAndre Thompkins and Miles Sanders who were given a hero's welcome, this was a handshake between strangers both hoping to soon become friends.

But the nice thing about actually playing the game, you don't need to guess how it might unfold. When it's actually happening, you just need to watch.

And on Saturday there was plenty to see.

You could see the absence of Saquon Barkley, something Appalachian State seemed acutely aware of, not dedicating the same man power to stop Miles Sanders as it may have the generational talent. In turn passing lanes were clogged, a 3-4 defense flustering both McSorley and his receivers in the early going. If not for two App State penalties on Penn State's opening drive, the Nittany Lions were facing an uninspiring three-and-out rather than an eventual touchdown.

There was no Mike Gesicki, who for all of his blocking flaws, was a familiar outlet and a reliable one at that. Jonathan Holland proved to be serviceable on his two catches, but not the feature of his predecessor, although perhaps a high bar to reach out of the gate.

Juwan Johnson seemed flustered and off his game, DeaAndre Thompkins was targeted once all afternoon. There was no leaping DaeSean Hamilton catch, no "wow" moment. Everything seemed watered down compared to an offense that had made its money gaining 40 yards in a blink. The play-calling less a homage to Joe Moorhead than the Fiesta Bowl was.

You could see the departures of a defensive unit that had become connected at the hip. There was no more Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith to fill the gaps, instead a rolling rotation of new faces at linebacker with an ever-changing defensive line in front of them. Behind the likes of Jan Johnson and Cam Brown was a secondary whose most talented player hadn't taken a snap in over a year. Everything was new, nothing was familiar.

It showed. Penn State's defense, no matter how good Appalachian State might turn out to be, was shredded both on the ground and through the air over the course of the game. The Nittany Lions defense stiffened in the middle portion, but a 28-point fourth quarter was hardly the trademark of a defense that had come accustom to rising to the occasion.

In short, the question marks that had been areas of concern in the offseason looked glaring weaknesses as the Nittany Lions gave up yards and points and at times struggled mightily to respond with any semblance of the offensive prowess it had showcased the past 24 months.

But it was also the sum of all hopes.

It has been said before and will be said again that Penn State can win any game as long as it has Trace McSorley.

And on Saturday he was masterful when he had to be, reliable when it counted and if nothing else, far down the list of reasons why Penn State's season almost crashed right out of the gates. While their careers might still be oceans apart, McSorley has earned at least partial Brady-esque confidence from fans in his ability to march the field in the moments he is called on. While Penn State's chances may have seemed dire, a seven-play, 48-yard drive set up by KJ Hamler's return seemed almost too easy for the three-year starter.

As he zipped a 15-yard pass into the middle of the end zone to Hamler, he certainly made it look like it was.

There was the aforementioned Hamler, who on an afternoon of bumpy moments from nearly everyone else, had four catches on five targets and provided the kind of confident spark Penn State needed both in his long return and late receptions.

There was Miles Sanders and Ricky Slade who both showcased why Saquon Barkley might be missed, but why he might not be required.

There was Jan Johnson who tackled everything he saw, a defense that did just enough when it had to, Jake Pinegar who had to make the hardest extra-point of his life. Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk who both had catches they would like back and big receptions when Penn State needed them the most. 

There were the intangibles too, finding a way to bounce back at the very last second despite all the reasons why Saturday seemed destined to go against the Nittany Lions. It is not a quality to be overlooked, nor one to be ignored in a sport that demands everyone take things a play at a time. Especially with a young team that will grow.

So if you believe that Penn State can reload, that the coaching and recruiting is there to make up for the departures, then there was reason to hold on to that hope.

How good is this team really? Saturday gave everyone a reason to look in both directions. Towards a team that might be regressing towards average, or one that has shown enough glimmers of talent and skill that Saturday will act as a teaching moment more than foreshadowing.

The answers will come soon, in the meanwhile you can make what you want of Penn State's win. Because sooner rather than later, nobody will have to guess.

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