John Massimilla (Penn State alum and long-time season ticket holder who bleeds Blue and White) and I attended the Penn State Blue-White game on a beautiful afternoon combined with a little tailgating. We both went in with question marks and felt good about what we saw based on the intrasquad game where no one shows much, but from what we saw, along with 65,000 others, we came away feeling more positive after seeing a few things we had witnessed. You have to take the final stats with grain of salt no doubt. The Blue team was primarily comprised of the first team playing against White, basically the second teamers. For example, experienced RB Mark Allen ran eight times for 49 yards against White. However, with a less experienced White line against a more experienced Blue defense, he rushed six times for only 15 yards. Second Team QB Tommy Stevens finished 10 of 17 for 100 yards, but his totals against White were three for three for 52 yards. I can’t understand why first team offense can’t play against the first team defense and second against second. It pits the best against the best if the first team plays the first for their best possible challenge of the spring season. On the other hand, I can only figure it’s to get the younger players more experience against the best players to see what they bring to the table. I guess that is what a coaching staff prefers to see at the end of spring football practice.
John and I came away with basically three positive take-aways after watching the scrimmage. We both liked new Offensive Coordinator Joe Moorhead’s strategy running the no huddle during the first few series. The Blue offense looked sharp driving 70 yards during their first possession resulting in a 15-yard TD pass from QB Trace McSorley to WR Chris Godwin. The team offense looked efficient, didn’t waste time, mixed the run and the pass, and they kept the defense off balance and guessing when they lined up quickly. It was well done. Having seen Joe Moorhead’s Fordham Rams play three games in 2014, I felt he would be great addition to the PSU staff. If James Franklin lets him operate on his own, I think this will be great positive for the Nittany Lion offense this season. Blue basically did the same on a 75-yard drive following a safety with WR Saeed Blacknall hauling in a 22-yard TD pass from McSorley. James Franklin and Moorhead must have figured they were satisfied with what the saw and reverted back to a conventional pace.
McSorley had great stats finishing 23 for 27 for 281 yards and four TDS. More importantly though, the second observation that John and I really came away with was that both McSorley and Stevens have strong, accurate throwing arms. They didn’t attempt any extremely long passes, but the accuracy looked much better than what we’d witnessed from Christian Hackenberg the last two seasons, especially in his short passing game. That will be a big improvement. Fourteen receivers caught passes. They spread the ball around well and receivers consistently caught their passes.
Along with Mark Allen, RB Andre Robinson did the brunt of the ball carrying and finished with seven carries for 50 yards playing against both defenses. Saquon Barkley, the Lions’ leading returning rusher last season was held out the entire game. They know what the sophomore can do already after last season. The third impression John and I came away with is that we saw improvement along the starting five on the offensive line – Derek Dowrey, Andrew Nelson, Noah Beh, Brendan Mahon, and Brian Gaia for the Blue team – but depth could be an issue and more development will have to take place for others during the summer sessions. We saw very little lateral mobility against the pass rush from their huge tackles Senior Paris Palmer and sophomore Sterling Jenkins. Maybe in straight ahead situations they can open some holes, but pass blocking needs to be a much less straight up with better lateral movement for both. Others are going to have to step up to give this unit more of the depth they need.
John and I went to the game with questions and came away feeling a little better about some of the things we saw. We liked the new tempo of the offense that looked sharp and well organized. The skill positions look better than expected. The offensive line is improving under Limegrover but needs more depth. The defense under Brent Pry replacing Bob Shoop who left for Tennessee will have a work in progress over the offseason as they put the pieces into place to rep develop talent replacing experience along the defensive front. Mike Limegrover coaching the offensive line should be an improvement over John Hand who left for Auburn. Not much improvement was seen under him in a unit known to be needing some better guidance. We think if Franklin lets his current coaches do what they do best, they will have this team well prepared. If he lets them run the game day operations, that is the best thing he can do, and then he can get back on the road and use his talents as a great recruiter. It looks like he made some great improvements this off season with the coaches he brought in.
The Lions open up at home against Kent State of the Mid-American before resuming its forgotten rival Pitt out at Heinz Field. It will be the first of four meetings, but we hope it can be resumed indefinitely. It will be great for both schools for recruiting and adding some heat to their non-conference schedules before both get into conference play. The Lions will then host Temple whom they lost to a year ago for the first time since 1941. The following week they get right into the thick of their Big Ten season when they travel to Ann Arbor to face Jim Harbaugh and his now-despised Wolverines. We will see the Lions host Ohio State and Urban Meyer on Saturday, October 22, and then we will see the season finale at home on November 26 when the Lions host Mark D’Antoni and the Spartans of Michigan State. We’re chomping at the bit, foaming at the mouth and everything else you can think of itching in anticipation of the 2016 season.
More reviews to come about other programs we will see this year including the Buffalo Bulls under second year HC Lance Leipold, HC of six time D-3 champs Wisconsin -Whitewater, aforementioned Ohio State and Michigan State, Cal, Navy foes Houston and Tulsa, and our opening weekend FCS teams Delaware, Delaware State and Fordham as well as Marist and San Diego later in the season.
Check back for these reviews to keep up with us about them and other off-season developments about our favorite sport and yours, college football.