Game Ball and Helmet Stickers: Season Opener

Game Ball and Helmet Stickers: Season Opener

I must say, I begin the first edition of this year’s “Game Ball and Helmet Stickers” in a much better mood than I did in 2015. The season opener versus Kent State wasn’t always pretty, especially for all those expecting to see some kind of high-octane, NASCAR-infused offense, but a win is a win is a win and we begin the year in much better shape than we did last September. If anyone remembers, I had no other choice than to give the Game Ball to former Nittany Lion, Matt Rhule, albeit one that was wearing the colors of an opponent that smacked us in the teeth with a 28-10 victory. Thankfully, there is no such thing to ponder today. My only dilemma was who exactly to choose out of a plethora of Blue and White, many of whom made their first appearance in live action on a sun-splashed afternoon in Happy Valley.

Credit the Golden Flashes for making this much more of a game than most expected. In the end we rang that victory bell to toast a new season and end a losing streak that dated back to the 39-0 trouncing of Illinois last Halloween. The Nittany Lions season-opening 33-13 win may have kept us on the edge of our seats for better or worse, but for a team that enters the year with a near mind-boggling 70+ freshmen and sophomores, that may be the norm until they all get their sea-legs underneath of them. For a squad that’s breaking in a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, and a new defensive coordinator, maybe it’s time we temper those expectations just a little while longer as they all continue to grow into their positions. That being said, there were plenty of flashes spread throughout to give us all reason to be excited as the year grinds on.

The season’s first Game Ball is two-fold and is based mostly on a major concern heading into the season. One because of a triple-loss to the NFL and the other because of what I feel cost us at least a few W’s over the past two seasons. First up, the Wild Dogs. Coming into the season, because of the loss of Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson, and multiple-award winner Carl Nassib, this unit was faced with the biggest questions. After a slow start on Saturday, the Wild Dogs took over and completely dominated the second half. Garrett Sickels is no doubt the Alpha Dog of this crew and made a living in the backfield as he finished with six tackles and one sack. Behind him, we received our introduction from names we had only heard but not yet seen in action. Shareef Miller (1.5 sacks) turned up the heat late, as did Antoine White, Kevin Givens, Ryan Buchholz, and Robert Windsor to put the game out of reach and prevent any attempt at a comeback. Along with Parker Cothren, Evan Schwann and Torrance Brown, the D-Line was credited with six of the seven sacks total on the day, the most for a Penn State defense over the past five years. This quickly put to rest any notion that the defense would suffer because of the losses up front.


As for the second Game Ball, this one goes to a true freshman from Georgia that garnered a standing ovation the second his foot touched the ball. Punter Blake Gilliken sailed his first punt 49-yards deep and gave us all reason to believe the days of poor field position were finally behind us. On the day he averaged 47-yards on six punts with a long of 59. After watching the rotating door at the punter position with little to no result over the past seasons, the leg of Gilliken was a welcome surprise and I suspect he has already been anointed the new BFF of the defense, who no longer have to defend only half of the field.

Amani Oruwariye’s Pick Six effectively gave Penn State the lead for good and he earned himself a helmet sticker in the process. Jason Cabinda led the team with 11 tackles, Brandon Bell ended a second-half drive with an INT, and Nyeem Wartman-White announced all was well with his rehabbed knee and collected a sack to go along with a very active day altogether for “Linebacker U”. The Heir Apparent, Trace McSorley, made his debut and was very effective running his offense despite a few drops and misses in the passing game that will be cleaned up over time, and Saquon was Saquon as he registered a somewhat quiet 105 yards and a touchdown on the afternoon. Marcus Allen set the tone in the secondary with a forced fumble. Chris Godwin reaffirmed his grip as the go-to receiver while DaeSean Hamilton established himself as a force to be reckoned with coming out of the slot, and Mike Gesicki set off on his tour of atonement with three mistake-free catches and one touchdown performance on the day. Last but not least, our final helmet sticker goes to “The Big Toe” Joe Julius who knocked the living daylights out of a Kent State return man simply by getting in his way and earned himself a spot on the national plays of the day.

All in all, a grand total of 19 Nittany Lions saw the field for the first time on Saturday. At times it showed, as the defense had trouble getting set and being in position early on and the offense left some plays on the field. At times, we saw a glimpse of what’s to come down the road. The offensive line remains a work in progress and that has me holding my breath just a little, but still only gave up one sack on the day. A far cry from the ten sacks they gave up a year ago in Philly. Once the D settled in and pinned their ears back, it reminded us of the ferocious defense we all know and love, even if we don’t know all of their names yet. As for all you expecting that high-octane, Nascar-fueled offense, I have a sneaky suspicion we saw very little of that playbook. Just enough to work out some kinks and get everyone up to speed, but nowhere near enough to give our next opponent anything worth preparing for. In other words, stay tuned, the winds of change are upon us. The book is closed on another season-opener. The tune-up is already behind us and the time is now for some meat and potatoes…with a slab of Panther as the main dish. See you in Pittsburgh, my friends.