By the time Saturday's season opener versus Idaho kicked off, the Nittany Lions were favored by somewhere north of 40 points. Even before the teams took the field in Beaver Stadium there was zero doubt about the outcome. The only real questions surrounding this one were how Penn State would look in their first action since January's Citrus Bowl, and with a new man taking snaps for the first time since 2016.
It seems easy to dismiss everything that happened in Penn State's 79-7 victory over a clearly overmatched FCS Idaho team. It's cliche, but the Lions were just bigger, faster, and stronger than the Vandals in every single spot. But decided talent advantages aside, Saturday's resounding victory does give us in the seats and at home in front of the TV a few things to chew on heading into week two against Buffalo.
We have talked extensively about how the season's first five games figure to give Sean Clifford and a tweaked offense some time to gel and find a rhythm. That was no more apparent than in the game's opening two drives. Gifted excellent field position, the Lions settled for a pair of field goals, the second coming from 53 yards out when Clifford and Co. failed to gain a single yard.
There are going to be moments like that, ideally fewer and fewer as the season progresses. It's the nature of things when you are dealing with so many new faces in key places. The same sorts fo things happened in Columbus as well. Yes, Ohio State got out to a quick 28-0 lead against FAU in their opener, but Justin Fields and the Buckeye offense could only muster 17 points the remainder of the game. What should be encouraging for the Lions is the lack of panic from all involved and a solid rebound. There will be more moments like these in the coming weeks, but the response to each will be most important.
Speaking of the offense, we saw glimpses of some new wrinkles from Ricky Rahne. Three Penn State backs caught six passes for 63 yards. KJ Hamler had one rush for 16 yards, and the electric playmaker was moved across the formation during his limited action. There were also some old standbys, notably the quarterback running on designed carries. Yes, Trace McSorley kept the ball often, but there were some questions about how much Clifford would do so. Not only did he have seven rushes, he looked perfectly comfortable with the ball in his hands. And speaking of hands, the receivers hauled in virtually every pass that hit them there. The only drop of note was Journey Brown out of the backfield.
On the other side of the ball, the unit that is expected to carry Penn State at the very least early in the year did just that. Brent Pry's defense held Idaho to just five first downs, and 145 yards of offense. Six players combined for seven sacks, led by All-American candidate Yetur Gross-Matos' 2.5. First time safety starter Lamont Wade was active with four tackles, three of them solo spots. John Reid made an easy interception, and five other passes were defended. Oh, and five-star linebacker Brandon Smith made his presence known with a massive (clean) hit late in the game.
Even the much maligned special teams unit showed signs of life under new coordinator Joe Lorig. Touchback Jesus Jordan Stout sailed kickoff after kickoff out of the end zone, and added the aforementioned 53-yard field goal as well. Jake Pinegar was perfect on his two field goals and ten extra points, flashing an apparently stronger leg. Hamler showed the game breaking ability we've come to expect as well on four punt returns. About the only negative came from reserve returner Mac Hippenhammer, who muffed one punt, and fumbled another during the return.
There are always are things to improve upon, of course. But Penn State did what it was supposed to do. After a slow start, the offense showed signs of the explosiveness that was lacking for much of 2018, and the execution that was inconsistent at best a year ago, regardless of the opponent. The defense held up its end of the bargain dominating an overmatched foe, and flashing the game breaking ability at all three levels.
Onto the Bulls.