Lions’ talent masking their youth, mistakes

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UNIVERSITY PARK — Only a true Penn State nitpicker would witness a 53-point victory and come away somewhat unimpressed.

So be it.

Yes, the Nittany Lions demolished Kent State, 63-10, on Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.

Yes, they are 3-0 heading into their Big Ten opener at Illinois — a team that Kent had on the ropes in Champaign in the season opener. (That game is at 9 p.m. Friday — that’s right, Friday — so you may want to mix in an afternoon nap).

For portions of Saturday’s first half, some of the 106,528 on hand could have been accused of nodding off.

James Franklin wasn’t among them, but he went home with a laundry list of issues to address.

“There are times when we look like a Super Bowl team,” Franklin said afterward, “and other times when we’re hurting ourselves.”

For the second straight week, the Lions sputtered offensively in the first half. They took a 7-0 on the game’s first possession, but “then we had a lull,” quarterback Trace McSorley said.

Kent State was most cooperative in assisting the Lions. The Golden Flashes were tagged for seven penalties in the first half alone — 10 for the game — that helped Penn State keep drives alive en route to a 28-10 halftime lead.

While Kent wasn’t committing penalties, Penn State was. The Lions were flagged nine times themselves, three of which took touchdowns off the scoreboard.

One of the penalties was for offensive pass interference for the second straight week that wiped out a big play.

“There are a lot of areas for improvement and growth and for where we want to go, we have to keep getting there,” Franklin said.

The Lions also dropped three passes (after five last week) and were whistled for jumping offside three times in the first quarter, which helped Kent State tie the game at 7.

“The clap cadence got us,” linebacker Cam Brown said. “We weren’t prepared for that, and we got a little antsy.”

Franklin: “We’ve got to eliminate the pre-snap penalties.”

The Lions also were surprised by an onside kick that Kent State recovered. That’s two in three games.

“Even for a 50-point win or a one-point win, there’s always ways to improve,” defensive end Shareef Miller, who recorded a pair of sacks, said. “There’s no excuses for us jumping offside.”

Fortunately for Penn State, the Lions are able to learn while still feeling good about themselves.

After their overtime survival against Appalachian State, they’ve now pummeled Pitt and Kent State by a combined 114-16.

“You don’t have to lose a game to get a wake-up call to figure things out,” Franklin said. “In some ways, I coach them harder after wins because they’re more prepared for that.”

It breeds a positive environment that the Nittany Lions currently enjoy. Franklin and his staff smartly scaled back the number of snaps the starters got Saturday in anticipation of the short week and travel for the late-nighter at Illinois.

“I just keep believing in these kids,” Franklin said. “We have shown we can be big-time players.”

Indeed. Many of the miscues the Lions have made have been masked by their depth on defense and their speed on offense.

Defensively, they’ve been superior for the past seven quarters. Saturday, they allowed just one touchdown on a ball that Amani Oruwariye has been intercepting.

Offensively, though Trace McSorley’s completion percentage of 51.7 is at a three-year low, they have burners galore and are seemingly a threat to score at any moment.

DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk both caught touchdown passes against Kent, and they need to play well to maintain their positions alongside K.J. Hamler, a most exciting young player who rolled up another 100-plus yard all-purpose day.

“We’ve got to be more consistent,” Franklin said, “but that goes with experience.”

The Lions also fumbled twice and were bailed out by their defense after an interception deep in their own territory, but they weren’t threatened by an outmanned opponent.

Dropped balls, excessive penalties and special-teams lapses usually add up to defeat when the opponent is Ohio State, which happens to be the next home game (Sept. 29).

“There’s tremendous growth that needs to happen after this game,” Franklin said. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff that’s on that tape that’s ugly and smells bad, and winning sometimes is like the deodorant that covers it up … but that’s the win. It doesn’t mean that you still can’t correct the issues and the problems because they’re there.”

Great teams aren’t measured by 53-point wins over Kent. They’re measured by their performance against a more well-known Ohio team so we’ll find out plenty more soon enough.

But asked for an assessment after three weeks, senior guard Ryan Bates didn’t blink.

“I think we’re pretty damn good,” he said.

Bates and his teammates will get their chance to prove that to anyone who isn’t quite as certain as he is.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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