The trials and tribulations came early for the 2018 Penn State Nittany Lions as they were pushed to their limit on Saturday, squeaking out a 45-38 overtime win over the Mountaineers of Appalachian State. How did they do it? These three stats help to tell the story.
204 Team rushing yards
The Penn State receiving corps seemed like they could not gain separation from the Mountaineer secondary for most of Saturday's game, so the Penn State rushing game made sure to pick up the slack. The trio of Nittany Lion running backs (Miles Sanders, Mark Allen, and Ricky Slade), along with quarterback Trace McSorley, racked up 204 yards and five touchdowns to take some of the weight off of the revamped wideout and tight end group. Sanders led all rushers with 91 yards, including all 25 that made up the game-winning score in overtime. Sanders was able to find openings with relative ease and consistency, showing that while Saquon Barkley will be missed, Sanders is up to the job of replacing the current New York Giant.
Slade scored the first touchdown of his collegiate career in the second half, finding daylight through the middle of the Appalachian State defense on a 27-yard scamper. He may not be the prime candidate for those runs in the future given his stature (he got stood up with relative ease on a 3rd-and-3 attempt in the first half), but his speed will make him a home run threat whenever a hole develops. Allen was able to spell Sanders as the main back on a couple of first-half possessions and had a number of positive runs, avoiding any dancing in the backfield and getting from Point A to Point B in the quickest way possible.
James Franklin said after the game that all three halfbacks would continue to see time throughout the season. Penn State fans should be content knowing that all are viable options to gain yards when called upon.
kj Hamler: 120 all-purpose yards
In his first collegiate game, receiver/kick returner K.J. Hamler shined, making three huge plays that were integral to the Lions' victory. The first of the three was one of the few times any Penn State receiver was able to separate themselves from the Appalachian State corners as Hamler seamed down the middle of the field, hauling in a 46-yard pass from McSorley to set up Sanders' first rushing touchdown of the game.
— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) September 1, 2018
When the Lion offense stalled on the next few possessions, allowing the Mountaineers to take the lead with less than two minutes left, the redshirt freshman decided to step up like a veteran, first hesitating and then returning a kickoff for 52 yards to allow the Lions to work with a short field and then eventually catching the game-tying touchdown with less than a minute left.
McSorley with a great throw! We are tied back up. Trace McSorley pass complete to KJ Hamler for a 15 yard touchdown. pic.twitter.com/Y8eSTRG1jN
— Football Dungeon (@DuaneLively) September 1, 2018
While Juwan Johnson is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 receiver on this squad, Hamler's debut should make him a candidate to become the team's No. 2, if not Trace McSorley's favorite downfield threat.
App State: 100 penalty yards
The Mountaineers might have walked away with a victory if they did not continually shoot themselves in the foot with penalties. It started on the first possession of the game as Appalachian State forced a Nittany Lion three-and-out. However, that defensive effort was negated due to a personal foul for taunting, the Lion drive continued and McSorley scored on a touchdown run five plays later. The Mountaineers also committed three, 15-yard illegal chop block penalties throughout the course of the game, two leading to gains for the Penn State offense and the third backing up the App State offense when they had first-and-goal on the two-yard-line (although they would go on to score on that possession to cut the Penn State lead to 24-17 in the fourth quarter). In total, Appalachian State was penalized 100 yards for nine infractions. Eliminate a couple of those mistakes and we're writing about an opening game loss for the Lions.