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Penn State vs Appalachian State: Breaking down the matchups

It’s put up or shut up time for Penn State up front,  Penn State vs Appalachian State where they return five players with extensive starting experience and can now officially be classified a veteran unit. The battle to watch here will be in the middle, where the one new starter up front – sophomore center Michal Menet – will get the assignment against the Mountaineers’ star run stuffer, 280-pound nose tackle MyQuon Stout, who had 41 tackles and has started all but one game over the last two years.

Penn State vs Appalachian State

EDGE: Penn State

KEY MATCHUP

Quarterbacks/Receivers vs. Secondary

This will be a very interesting battle of wits between a secondary that has consistently been one of the best at forcing turnovers in the FBS over a three-year span and a quarterback who has been one of the very best at creating big plays in the FBS over that same time frame. Penn State QB Trace McSorley is going to have to establish a deep threat with DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall gone, and the best bet to do that is veteran DeAndre Thompkins. But watch out for redshirt freshman K.J. Hamler, who emerged as one of the stars of camp. Given the style of the Mountaineers’ defense, there may be some plays to be made here for McSorley as a runner.

EDGE: Penn State

Running backs vs. Linebackers

Appalachian State ILB Anthony Flory is a good, productive player, the MVP of last year’s Dollar General Bowl who ranked second on the team in tackles last season. But, he has a relatively new group around him, led by quick OLBs Noel Cook and Akeem Davis-Gaither. The Lions have a slew of running backs who could contribute, and while it’s Miles Sanders’ job, the Mountaineers are going to have to worry about true freshman Ricky Slade, a speedster who can affect a defense in the passing game as well.

EDGE: Penn State

When Appalachian State has the ball

Offensive line vs. Defensive line

Left tackle Victor Johnson might be the best offensive lineman in the entire Sun Belt Conference, and he leads a line that has traditionally withstood losses to remain effective. His matchup against sophomore defense end Yetur Gross-Matos, maybe the most physically gifted member of Penn State’s defensive line, is going to be one to watch. The Nittany Lions have some question marks at defensive tackle, but they should have enough experience there to overcome the interior of a Mountaineers line starting three sophomores.

EDGE: Penn State

Quarterbacks/Receivers vs. Secondary

The Mountaineers graduated a four-year starter at quarterback, but the word on sophomore Zac Thomas is that he moves around well and has a strong-enough arm to keep defenses honest. He also has a solid returning starter in Thomas Hennigan and a pair of Kansas State transfers – Corey Sutton and Dominique Heath – who can potentially be a handful. This is a potentially very good secondary despite losing four starters, but this is John Reid’s first game back at corner and the first starts ever at safety for Nick Scott and Garrett Taylor. Is it fair to expect rust?

EDGE: Penn State

Running backs vs. Linebackers

As talented as the Nittany Lions’ young linebackers are, it’s fair to say they’ve never seen a running back as physically gifted as Jalin Moore in a game before. The senior rushed for 1,037 yards last season, was the Sun Belt’s offensive Player of the Year in 2016 and is a potential NFL prospect. OLB Cam Brown has had a big camp, and he separates Penn State here, but expect MLB Jan Johnson and the youngsters to get all they can handle.

EDGE: Penn State

Special teams

Kicking game

As much as James Franklin might like his young kickers, the fact remains they’re unproven. So we don’t know what kickers Jake Pinegar and Rafael Checa can do just yet. It is clear the Mountaineers have a pretty good kicker in sophomore Chandler Staton, who was 8 of 9 on field goals and didn’t miss an extra point last season. Blake Gillikin can control the field position game for Penn State, but if punters become a major factor in a close game, Appalachian State will sign up for whatever happens.

EDGE: Appalachian State

Return game

Someone can make a big play on a return in this game, and that goes for both teams. PSU punt returner DeAndre Thompkins has the game-breaking ability, if not consistency, and the staff seems excited about K.J. Hamler returning kicks. Clifton Duck on punts and Darrynton Evans on kicks have big-time speed for the Mountaineers.

EDGE: Penn State

Prediction

Penn State has more talent and more depth and a home-field advantage and a Heisman contender at quarterback. And, it can still lose this game if it makes too many mistakes. They’ll have to play a better game than they usually have to in a season opener, because Appalachian State is a team good enough, at some point this season, to appear in the Top 25. That time isn’t now though. There are too many youngsters breaking in, too many questions at big positions for the Mountaineers and, ultimately, Penn State just plays too well at Beaver Stadium. McSorley and the offense break this one open late.

Penn State 33, Appalachian State 21