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Penn State's Appalachian State Scare Shows How Much Work Is Left for the Nittany Lions

The Nittany Lions were lucky to escape their season opener with a win over feisty Appalachian State, but the overtime thriller showed the transition Penn State is still working through after losing offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and RB Saquon Barkley.

For the second time in three years, Appalachian State pushed a top-10 Week 1 opponent to overtime—and lost.

It took a late-game touchdown by Trace McSorley and an Amani Oruwariye pick in the end zone in overtime, but Penn State got its win, 45–38. It was, coach James Franklin said in his postgame Big Ten Network interview, “an ugly one, tough one,” but as night fell in Pennsylvania, the Nittany Lions hung on to their College Football Playoff hopes.

Going into Saturday, Penn State was a popular pick to make college football’s final four, despite playing in a contender-laden Big Ten East. By halftime, the conference’s other favorites had logged wins; Wisconsin defeated Western Kentucky, 34–3, on Friday night, and Ohio State charged to a 77–31 win over Oregon State—without its coach, Urban Meyer, who is suspended from in-game coaching for two more weeks. Meanwhile, Penn State was tied at 10 with a Sun Belt team playing a first-year starter at quarterback.

Nothing about the Nittany Lions’ first half should have been too shocking; they looked like a team fresh off replacing a talented offensive coordinator (Joe Moorhead, who took the Mississippi State job last winter) and the best running back in the game in 2017 (Saquon Barkley, who the Giants made the No. 2 pick in last spring’s NFL draft). Early on, those two departures loomed large; at halftime, Penn State had just 91 rushing yards and 160 yards of total offense, and it had used three running backs already. McSorley, a Heisman contender in his third year as a starter, looked slow out of the gate as well, and it took him nearly three quarters to toss his first touchdown. (When he did, it extended his streak to 29 straight games with a touchdown throw.)

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Coming out of halftime, the game seemed to regress to its expected rhythm. Penn State scored 14 points in the third quarter, during which time its defense shut out Appalachian State and its quarterback, Zac Thomas. Order seemed to be restored—and then, of course, it was no longer. The game’s fourth quarter was as riveting as it was bizarre, as Appalachian State took total control of the game at times, its winded defensive line somehow besting a Heisman-contending quarterback. It looked possible, probable even, that the Mountaineers would get their first major upset as an FBS team, 11 years to the day after they spoiled Michigan’s home opener from the ranks of the FCS.

In the end, though, the game came down to two plays: McSorley’s 15-yard, game-tying touchdown pass to K.J. Hamler with 42 seconds remaining in regulation (a perfectly respectable throw against a Group of Five defense replacing its own accomplished coordinator, which Matt Millen in the Big Ten Network booth described a “Heisman play”), and App State coach Scott Satterfield’s choice to attempt a 56-yard field goal on fourth-and-four with 15 seconds to go. That decision to try to pull off a long kick rather than eke out four yards would haunt Appalachian State; the field goal was no good, and in overtime, reality took hold. McSorley and company were able to march down the field, and when Appalachian State got its turn, it barely nudged its way to a first down before Thomas threw the end-zone interception that decided the game.

In the third quarter and overtime, at least, Penn State proved it was the more talented team—against the second-youngest roster in FBS ball, straight out of one of the game’s weakest conferences. It was hardly the Week 1 stomping the Nittany Lions were hoping for, and compared with what the rest of the best of the Big Ten was able to do (even Maryland was able to pull off a head-turning win, over Texas), Penn State looks like it has ground to gain if it wants to live up to its lofty expectations. The win kept them—and McSorley’s Heisman chances—alive, but with Pitt in primetime next week and Ohio State on September 29, things won’t get any easier from here.