STATE COLLEGE — Each time Penn State’s offense drove toward Beaver Stadium’s south end on Saturday, Saquon Barkley passed 16 Penn State students in the front row whose bare chests, painted blue and white and beginning to smear from the rain, spelled out S-A-Q-U-O-N F-O-R H-E-I-S-M-A-N.
Barkley has tried to block out personal hype to keep focused on his responsibilities as a team leader. He’ll need to keep doing it, especially if he keeps playing like this.
The junior running back racked up 226 total yards and two touchdowns to lead No. 6 Penn State to a 52-0 win over Akron in the season opener on Saturday.
“We have so many playmakers,” Barkley said. “Some games are going to be my game, some are going to be (quarterback) Trace (McSorley)’s game, some games it’s going to be (tight end) Mike (Gesicki) and obviously others on the offensive side of the ball.”
All of them helped Penn State’s offense pick up where it left off when the Big Ten champions won nine of their final 10 games last season.
McSorley, himself a Heisman Trophy hopeful, was 18 for 25 passing for 280 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a touchdown. Gesicki added six catches for 58 yards and two scores.
DeAndre Thompkins scored on a 61-yard punt return and backup quarterback Tommy Stevens ran for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Tyler Davis made a 47-yard field goal for the Nittany Lions, who’ve scored 35 or more points in eight straight games. That’s the longest active streak among Power 5 teams and in program history.
“Most consistent camp that we’ve had,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Which equates to probably the most complete game since we’ve been here.”
Although it rained heavily early in the game, a soggy field and leaky Akron defense couldn’t slow Barkley and McSorley, who combined for 371 total yards and four scores in the first half to put the game out of reach.
Barkley’s dazzling skills helped the offense recover from an early red zone interception by McSorley.
He set up Penn State’s second touchdown when McSorley targeted him with a third-and-10 pass early in the first. Barkley, running to his left, hauled in the short toss, stopped on a dime, stutter-stepped through two defenders and cut back across the field, where he eluded three more for a 17-yard gain. McSorley zipped his first touchdown pass to Gesicki two plays later to put the game out of reach thanks to a reloaded Penn State defense.
The Zips punted 11 times and quarterback Thomas Woodson was intercepted on the other drive. The Zips crossed midfield just once, needing a fourth-down stop on defense to set up favorable field position.
“I think our defense came out and played really well,” Franklin said. “I think we were dominant up front, especially inside.”
Woodson completed 12 of 23 passes for 71 yards.
“You learn from it. We play a lot of people. We played hard. We just didn’t play great,” Akron coach Terry Bowden said. “I think they’re a very good football team, and that’s why they were preseason picked No. 6, and that’s why I think they’re a contender to challenge Ohio State for the conference championship.”
Special special teams
Thompkins’ first-quarter punt return broke a nearly decade-long drought for Penn State special teams units. Derrick Williams, who’s now a sideline reporter for Penn State’s broadcast team, was the last Nittany Lion to score on a punt return. He did so against Wisconsin in 2008.
Williams praised Thompkins’ speed and vision and predicted on a pregame radio show that this would be the season, if not the game, the streak would be broken.
“That’s always been something that’s been talked about, ‘Who’s going to break it?’” Thompkins said. “I knew I had a good chance and I trusted my guys a lot. I had that chip on my shoulder that I had to break it this game.”
An early end
Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller appeared to suffer a leg injury after only a few plays. Miller, who was expected to play a big role for Penn State’s front seven, limped to the sideline where he propped up his left leg on the trainer’s table and later his helmet. He headed for the locker room just before halftime and did not return to play.
Akron: The Zips couldn’t get anything going offensively behind Woodson, a three-year starter, and still couldn’t move the ball when Kato Nelson took over at quarterback in the third. Barkley gained yards at will against an Akron defense that had no answer for his speed and quickness. The good news? The Zips won’t play teams on Penn State’s level every week.
Penn State: The Nittany Lions were plagued by sluggish starts and early mistakes in games last season yet still ascended. This group began the season with energy and turned in explosive plays and scores on five of their seven first-half possessions.
Akron hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday.
Penn State hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday.