Early schedule giving Lions chance to grow
By NEIL RUDEL
For The Express
UNIVERSITY PARK — The Penn State faithful surpassed the 104,000 mark at Beaver Stadium for the second consecutive week so imagine if the opposition was a team that people actually wanted to see play.
Instead, we’ve witnessed Idaho and Buffalo in season-opening appetizers.
And you know what? This year, it makes sense as it appears the 2019 edition of the Nittany Lions will be a work in progress.
Saturday night helped prove that as the Lions were thoroughly outplayed in the first half before John Reid’s 36-yard interception return for a touchdown turned the game around and sparked Penn State’s 45-13 victory.
From there, the Lions got stronger, wore down a spunky and well-coached Buffalo squad and were not seriously challenged after halftime.
But it was a good thing for Penn State that it was playing a Mid-American Conference team and not one from a Power-5 conference.
There have been seasons when the Nittany Lions opened with a challenging test — several of the old Kickoff Classic matchups (USC, Georgia Tech and even Nebraska) come to mind.
Those games were designed to kick-start seasons with high expectations for a team stocked with experienced returnees.
That will definitely need to be the case in 2021 when the schedule calls for — you’re reading this correctly — a season-opening trip to Wisconsin followed two weeks later by a visit from Auburn and games at Iowa and Michigan State before November features consecutive matchups with Michigan and at Ohio State.
Presumably, James Franklin is aware of it.
For now, though, for this team — one breaking in new quarterback Sean Clifford and featuring a defense that is supposed to be the team strength but showed some vulnerability to both the pass and run against Buffalo — the softer early schedule should allow for some growing pains.
Many of the mistakes Penn State didn’t make against Idaho surfaced against the Bulls.
“They had a great plan,” Franklin said of Buffalo. “We have to make some adjustments sooner on the defensive side of the ball. Depending on opponents, we can’t wait until halftime to make the adjustments.”
Pitt is up next, a rival in name only but one that will bring some passion from the Panthers and the fan base old enough to remember when the game meant more than just a W or an L.
Pitt was whipped by a solid Virginia team in its opener and avoided compounding its mess by responding with a 20-10 win over Ohio so the Panthers will not get here 0-2 and demoralized.
And if it hadn’t been so before Saturday, Maryland’s surprising 63-20 thumping of Syracuse should have served notice that the Terps could well be a dangerous opponent for PSU on Friday, Sept. 27 in College Park – the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Though Penn State has dominated Maryland by a collective 104-6 the last two years, new Terps’ coach Mike Locksley now has an early-season win to build on and will be looking to restore some competitiveness to the series.
Just as Maryland turned heads Saturday, Michigan did, too, as it was fortunate to avoid Army’s gallant upset bid in double overtime so plenty of uncertainty all over the schedule awaits.
There’s no question Franklin has recruited extremely well and pumped his roster full of talented athletes, especially at the skill positions.
Clifford has performed admirably, both as a passer and runner.
But there are still legitimate questions about this offensive line — especially given three returning starters (Michal Menet, Steven Gonzalez and Will Fries) — as the ground game against Buffalo was less than impressive.
“We’ve got to be more consistent,” Franklin said. “I didn’t think we were finishing blocks.”
These first couple of games, and the Lions’ scoring advantage of 124-20, have helped facilitate a 2-0 start.
From here, we’ll get a much better idea of how well it prepare this team for the rest of the 2019 schedule, let alone the one in 2021.