Penn State’s leaky secondary seeks improvement
STATE COLLEGE — As Appalachian State lined up to try and match his team’s touchdown in overtime Saturday, Penn State coach James Franklin bounded up and down the sideline, gesturing wildly for more than 105,000 fans to make noise.
Franklin knew it would take everything for the No. 10 Nittany Lions to hold off the Mountaineers. From his perspective, that’s not necessarily a bad thing this early on.
“You look at any really good season, there’s always a win like that where you had to overcome adversity, you had a gritty win, you had to fight it out, you had to stick together,” Franklin said. “We’re going to look back at the end of the year, and this is going to be a critical win for us.”
Franklin speaks from experience.
The Nittany Lions’ current run of 21 wins in 24 games began with a comeback victory in overtime against Minnesota in October 2016. Like in that game, however, there are plenty of areas Penn State coaches and players will need to examine to prevent worse outcomes with a tough schedule looming.
Coughing up a 31-17 lead in a fourth quarter that saw Penn State allow 175 passing yards to a first-time starting quarterback is the glaring issue from Saturday.
“We’ve got to be better in coverage,” Franklin said.
Appalachian State quarterback Zac Thomas took advantage of a blown assignment to spark his team’s comeback. He hit an uncovered Malik Williams in stride for a 17-yard score as defensive backs John Reid and Nick Scott blitzed themselves out of coverage.
Missed tackles on horizontal passing plays also helped the Mountaineers rack up 292 total passing yards, the fourth most Penn State’s surrendered since the start of last season.
But the Nittany Lions are playing with a secondary made of all new pieces this fall.
Safeties Garrett Taylor and Scott and corners Amani Oruwariye and Reid started for the first time as a group. Oruwariye and Scott played last year alongside a veteran group of players who had started nearly every game since 2016. Reid was an every-down player in 2016 but missed all of last year with a knee injury.
“First game of the season there is always going to be times where we make mistakes,” Oruwariye said. “We try to eliminate and minimize them as much as possible, but there is definitely mistakes that we have to clean up and move on from.”
But Thomas did plenty to make Penn State’s secondary look bad when it appeared the Nittany Lions had their opponent locked up.
He threw a liner to Williams, whose crafty route gave him a step on Reid and the space to score. Thomas set up a tying 1-yard touchdown with a 39-yard rainbow that landed in Corey Sutton’s hands just out of the reach of defender Tariq Castro-Fields, who was in position to make a play.
“I put our receiving group up with anybody in the country,” Thomas said. “We have fantastic receivers, and I trusted every one of them and they trusted me.”
Penn State’s defensive backs are realistic. They know that chemistry comes with playing time. They also believe in their talent.
Scott and Taylor provided a handful of heavy hits and open-field tackles in run support, and Oruwariye got his sixth career interception to seal the game in overtime.
“We’re still learning a lot about this team,” Oruwariye said. “We’re a team that is going to be resilient throughout the whole fourth quarter and overtime. Nobody was putting their heads down on the sideline. Everybody was saying ‘let’s go’ when it was going to be the defense.”