STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The season opener Saturday for No. 15 Penn State against Idaho stopped being competitive about a minute-and-a-half into the game when the visitors from the FCS went for it on fourth-and-one from their own 34 and didn’t make it on the initial possession of the afternoon.
The Nittany Lions then scored early and often, putting up points on 13 of their 16 drives in a 79-7 obliteration of the Vandals before a crowd of 104,527 at Beaver Stadium. It was the most points they scored since defeating Cincinnati 81-0 in a 1991 game, and their 673 total yards were the third-most in program history.
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It was a game where the Lions could have mentally shut it down and worried about what lies ahead; certainly every contest the rest of the season will be a more difficult test. But with more than 70 players seeing action, including 10 true freshmen and some walk-ons, no one dared shut it down.
Veteran cornerback John Reid, the St. Joseph’s Prep graduate who accounted for the Lions’ only turnover on a third-quarter interception that led to a short TD drive, explained that the competitor in you always comes out no matter how lopsided the score, even if it’s 44-0 at the half.
“I don’t find that hard at all,” he replied when asked if it was difficult for the players to keep their foot on the gas pedal.
“We enjoy playing football. We get into football because we enjoy playing it. So for us, we’re happy to be on the field. When you’re super competitive and you want to win beyond that, and you want to keep beating your opponent every single play, it’s more than just about the score.”
Penn State fans, a good percentage of whom retreated to their gas grills and their tailgate parties as the second half wore on, had a lot to be happy about. In his first career start, Sean Clifford overcame a shaky first couple of drives to roll up 337 yards of total offense – 280 passing, 57 rushing – in one half and one third-quarter series of playing time.
“I really thought I wasn’t going to be (nervous) when I got off the bus,” said Clifford, who completed one of his first four passes and recovered his own fumble. “But walking through the crowd, feeling that energy a little bit more, I was like, ‘All right, this might be a little bit nerve-wracking going into the first snap.’ ”
The Lions’ stable of four scholarship running backs and one walk-on back all scored touchdowns. The true freshmen stood out – Devyn Ford, helped by a great job by wide receiver Justin Shorter of shielding the last would-be tackler, dashed 81 yards for a second-quarter score and finished with 107 yards in six carries. Noah Cain scored twice and added 44 yards on nine attempts.
“With Devyn and Noah, I feel that they matured today,” said redshirt junior Journey Brown, who rushed for two touchdowns and caught two passes out of the backfield. “They knew coming into a stadium like this, your emotions can get hold of you, but I feel like they pushed it down and they grew up. They played like men today. They came ready to play.”
The defense threw up some impressive numbers against the overmatched Vandals. The visitors accounted for one first down and 47 total yards in the first half. They finished with 145 total yards, four on the ground. Yetur Gross-Matos led a pass rush that accounted for seven sacks, getting 2 ½ himself.
The Nittany Lions also had 11 tackles for loss. A total of nine defensive linemen were in on at least one tackle.
“I think today was a big stepping stone for us,” tackle P.J. Mustipher said. “We came in at halftime, had a big lead, and we just continued to dominate on the defensive and offensive sides of the ball. So just never letting up and I think that’s what takes us from good to great and I’m just proud of that.”
Of course, the games are not going to be this easy the rest of the year. And head coach James Franklin will make sure his players don’t get a big head because of the effortless nature of the win.