Onus on McSorley as No. 10 Penn St. faces Appalachian St.
— By Stephen Pianovich, The Sports Xchange —
The expectations are high again in Happy Valley as James Franklin enters his fifth season at Penn State — even with some of the big names from last season gone.
Franklin’s No. 10 Nittany Lions get their season started this Saturday with a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff against Appalachian State at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa.
“We’ve still got a few more days we need to clean up some things and get ready for this game and so we can go and play fast and aggressive come Saturday,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference, “but I like where we’re at.”
Penn State is led offensively by senior quarterback Trace McSorley, who is heading into his third season as the starter. One of the most experienced quarterbacks in the nation, McSorley threw for 3,570 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2017 while also rushing for 491 yards and 11 scores.
McSorley could be a Heisman Trophy contender in 2018, but there were some notable departures around him following the 2017 campaign.
Penn State is, of course, without superstar running back Saquon Barkley. He left the school after his junior season and was picked second overall by the New York Giants in the 2018 NFL draft.
Miles Sanders will get his first look as Penn State’s starting running back, replacing Barkley. As a sophomore last season, Sanders ran for 191 yards on 31 carries in 10 games.
The Nittany Lions also lost their leading receiver, DaeSean Hamilton (857 yards, nine touchdowns in 2017), and top tight end Mike Gesicki (563 yards, nine touchdowns in 2017) to graduation.
Additionally, Penn State has a new offensive coordinator in Ricky Rahne. Joe Moorhead, who ran the seventh-best scoring offense in the nation last season, moved from his role as the Nittany Lions’ OC to Mississippi State’s head coach.
Penn State has even more players to replace on defense. The Nittany Lions lost eight starters from their 2017 defense — a unit that gave up just 16.5 points per game, the seventh-best mark in the country.
“I think we all know, we’ve got a lot of question marks this year, probably more than we’ve had the past two years, and I think we have a very, very challenging schedule. But I’m excited,” Franklin told reporters at Penn State’s media day in early August.
“…We’ve got a good-looking football team. We’re athletic. We’re inexperienced but we’re talented.”
Penn State, which won the Fiesta Bowl last year and finished the season ranked No. 8, is coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons. The Nittany Lions are hoping for their second conference title in three seasons in a Big Ten that features five teams in the top 14 of the AP poll to start the season.
Penn State is also trying to win at least 10 games in three straight seasons for the first time since 1980-1982.
Appalachian State, meanwhile, is 30-9 in its last three seasons and claimed a share of the Sun Belt title in both 2016 and 2017. The Mountaineers went 9-4 last season and were 34-0 winners over Toledo in the Dollar General Bowl.
Now in its fifth season as an FBS program, Appalachian State is still best remembered for its 2007 upset of Michigan. The program will try to shock the nation again Saturday, and the Mountaineers will have to do it with a new starting quarterback.
Redshirt sophomore Zac Thomas will be making his first collegiate start at the 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium. He replaces Taylor Lamb, who started the final 49 games of his Appalachian State career under center. Thomas threw for 33 yards on 10 attempts last season and also ran for 45 yards.
“There’s a lot of stuff put on me to be a team leader,” Thomas told AppStateSports.com. “You’re watching more film, learning defenses inside and out, getting that extra work with receivers to get the timing down.”
The Mountaineers do return running back Jalin Moore, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in both of the last two seasons. Moore is one of six returning starters on Appalachian State’s offense, and the team brings back five starters on defense.