When: Sat. Sept. 3, 2016; 3:30 pm ET
Where: State College, PA; Beaver Stadium (107,282)
All-Time Series: Penn State leads 4-0
Last Meeting: Penn State won 34-0 (in 2013)
Line: Penn State -19
Kent State comes into Happy Valley to open the football season, and these two have become relatively common non-conference opponents over the past few years with 3 meetings since 2003. Although the series has not gone well for the Golden Flashes, Paul Haynes has what appears to be his best team in his fourth season at the helm after taking over for Darrell Hazell. KSU is looking to avoid a fourth-consecutive losing season, and a non-conference win against PSU would go a long way to helping avoid that, especially with tough MAC West division crossover games combined with a road game at Alabama later in September.
Meanwhile for Penn State, James Franklin is also looking to start making a move in the positive direction in his third season, and he has two new coordinators looking to get off to a great start. With a high number of returning starters as well, the Lions will match up well with the experience of KSU and that should help minimize the typical Week 1 jitters and play execution kinks. Will Penn State keep its perfect record in this series, or will Haynes’ squad pull a big upset?
1 Burning Question: How effective will Trace McSorley and the new PSU offense be against an overmatched (in talent) opponent?
Despite bringing back 9 starters on the offense, the leader of that unit will need to be replaced as quarterback Christian Hackenberg moves on. Trace McSorely played mostly in mop-up duty and some limited amount in the Taxslayer Bowl, but he will be the first to run the Nittany Lions’ offense. He and his experienced skill player talent, led by RB Saquon Barkley, will be running a modified offense under new coordinator Joe Moorehead. Kent State improved on defense and held opponents to 350 yards per game last season, so this will be a good early test of whether Penn State can leverage better talent to be effective on offense and to win more games than in 2014 and 2015.
2 Key Stats:
— 134. That’s the amount of yards per game Penn State rushed for in 2015. Saquon Barkley returns for a sophomore season after going for more than 1000 yards last year. He will be the focus of the Penn State offense early, especially as McSorley gets his feet underneath him. The Golden Flashes had a good rush defense last year, so this will be a battle of team strengths so long as Penn State has improved in this aspect of the game. That will be necessary to compete in the Big Ten over the long haul of the season.
— 18. That’s the number of returning starters for Kent State. Despite coming off three losing seasons in a row, Kent State should be much improved because there are basically no new starters outside one offensive lineman and a couple of players in the defensive backfield. Experienced teams like this tend to be the type that pull off one or more big upsets, and opening week is a good chance to sneak up on a superior team. Penn State needs to be wary of the opening week lull like last year’s blowout loss to Temple.
3 Key Players:
Trace McSorley, Penn State QB: For all of the reasons set forth above, the new starter for Penn State will be a key focus of this game and how that projects forward for the program this season and in the future. If McSorley can leverage his weapons at receiver and mix in some well-timed scrambles and runs, this offense will be far more potent and unpredictable for opposing defenses. The statistics won’t be as important as the poise and leadership shown.
Nate Holley, Kent State FS: It may not always be a good thing when a safety leads a team in tackles like Holley did a year ago, but his numbers show more than just an underachieving front 7. To this end, the 141 tackles Holley contributed last season proved how good he was at reading plays of opposing offenses to be in the right place to help make a play every down. With a potentially simplified game plan for the new PSU quarterback likely in week 1, Holley is the biggest threat to break one or two big plays and keep this game close.
Chris Godwin, Penn State WR: The top target in the Penn State passing game was Godwin, who went for over 1100 yards and 5 touchdowns last year. While he will not benefit from having a pro-caliber quarterback tossing to him this season, he will again be an important contributor in pulling in passes from McSorley when the opportunities arise. If Godwin can break a couple big plays early, that may open up the Golden Flashes defense to be gashed by many other players.
4 Bold Prognostications:
— Saquon Barkley kicks off a great 2016 season with over 150 yards and 2 touchdowns. Sometimes the best strategy is the most straightforward, which in this case is to ride the running back until Kent State breaks on defense. Barkley and his line should be able to wear down the Flashes and that will lead to one or two big plays that make the stat line great for Barkley.
— The Nittany Lions generate 3+ turnovers in this game. Early September football tends to be messy football, and some new starters on the Lions’ defense will be looking to make big contributions in the season opener. While that could lead to some missed tackles and big plays for Kent State’s offense, it should also pay off with a number of turnovers to keep this game under full control at home.
— Penn State won’t give up even half as many sacks as last year’s season opener. Last year the PSU opening game against Temple became a national talking point and joke thanks to the Owls getting 10 sacks. While this prognosticator is not bold enough to say the rebuilt Lions defensive line will put up a clean sheet in this game (thanks also to the inexperience of the QB), we will call for a severely limited number of sacks and big negative plays, generally speaking.
— Former Kent State QB Colin Reardon will catch a touchdown pass in his first game as a receiver. After struggling as a co-starter at quarterback, Reardon has moved to WR for his senior season. He will not start, but Haynes and his staff will work him in and he will make the positive story of the game for Kent State in this opener. It’s a stretch, but we have to finish on a truly BOLD prediction.
5 Staff Predictions:
Andy: Penn State 31-10
Dave: Penn State 28-7
Phil H.: Penn State 30-10
Phil R.: Penn State 28-13
Zach: Penn State 31-7
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