In my nearly 30 years on this planet, I have seen Penn State play up in East Rutherford at the Meadowlands complex more than any other place outside of Beaver Stadium. I was there for a couple of the now-defunct Kickoff Classics vs. USC (a victory in 1996 and loss in 2000), witnessed them trounce Rutgers with Bobby Engram running a fumble he picked up in for a touchdown at the beginning of the game, and even saw them play and destroy Temple in Giants Stadium in 1996.
Saturday I was able to add another chapter to bearing witness to Penn State playing at the Meadowlands, as the Nittany Lions topped Syracuse at MetLife Stadium 23-17 in the season opener behind a stout defense and just enough offense. And while the game was all well and good — particularly last year's goat, Sam Ficken, and true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg taking home Big Ten honors — the highlight of the entire trip came well before kickoff.
I departed for the game at approximately 11 a.m. with two of my longtime friends, both of whom were roommates of mine during our college days at Penn State. Surprisingly, we hit virtually no traffic the entire way, even as we approached the Meadowlands, leaving us plenty of time to tailgate. The first thing we noticed, which was no surprise, was that the vast majority of the parking lots were filled with Penn State supporters, with very little orange in sight despite this being an official Syracuse home game. We also noticed a lack of, let's say, aesthetic beauty.
Anyway, we posted up and began eating and drinking when something pretty hilarious happened. Across from us was an interesting-looking family — a large, athletic-looking guy with a tough-guy feel to him, his wife that looked a bit off and two young boys. The father was tossing the ball around with one son, as the other was running around. A little later, the father and his two sons were tossing some bean bags when the smaller of the boys tugged on his dad's pant leg and asked him where the bubbles where. The father's reply?
"Who gives a shit about bubbles?!?"
It had us laughing our asses off, and the dad turned toward us and said, "Fucking bubbles!" He was clearly disgusted with his young son discussing bubbles at a football tailgate — and he had no qualms about using the foul language in front of him. Quite entertaining if a bit concerning.
A little later, that same young boy was looked at by medics after falling, but he was fine — just a little scrape on his arm or something. It was quite a different tailgate, that's for sure.
After a couple hours in the parking lot, we headed in and prepped for the start of the college football season. In line, surrounded by Penn State fans, a rowdy group of college-aged Syracuse fans began some chants they found to be extremely clever, such as, "BOWL GAMES! BOWL GAMES! BOWL GAMES!" Because, you know, Penn State should be jealous of Syracuse's impressive résumé of bowl games since the Nittany Lions can't go to any for a little while. Admittedly, it was a tame chant, but it did prepare the Penn State fans in attendance for the few Orange fans that actually bothered to show up.
We got to our seats in the end zone and got all settled in. There were a few Syracuse fans around us, including a drunk, obnoxious woman who eventually was escorted out after causing a fight, but it was mostly Penn State fans surrounding us. It was a remarkably comfortable day, our view was great and we were ready.
Penn State received the opening kickoff and had its drive stalled in Syracuse territory. Nothing noteworthy there … except the fact that reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year Allen Robinson did not see the field the entire drive. That had me scrambling all over to find out why in the world the team's best player wasn't on the field. I sent out texts and hit Twitter, finally learning that Robinson had been suspended for disciplinary reasons. At first, the tweet I saw reported he was suspended for the game, but turns out he was just suspended for the first half. No one knows why, exactly, since coach Bill O'Brien would not disclose the reason and Robinson was muzzled after the game. My guess is he missed a class or practice or curfew or something, but that's purely speculation.
Anyway, without Robinson on the field and with a true freshman quarterback under center, Penn State moved the ball a bit but could not get any points on the board. Then, to close out the first quarter, O'Brien put sophomore junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson in the game, who promptly threw a strike for 18 yards on his first play … only to fumble on his second, losing the ball as he cocked to pass. That led to a field goal by Syracuse to take a 3-0 lead, and it also led to Ferguson spending the rest of the game on the bench. One drive, one turnover and one lost chance to become the starter moving forward.
From there, it was Hackenberg's show, and the freshman impressed. However, he could not cap off any drives with touchdowns, and he wasn't helped by the play-calling of O'Brien.
Penn State did take a 6-3 lead into halftime as Sam Ficken continued to show his remarkable improvement by easily connecting on back-to-back 36- and 35-yard field goals, but the offense was sort of stagnant without Robinson. A large reason for that was because O'Brien was calling quite the curious game — something that continued the entire way. He repeatedly called for Hackenberg to do it all in just his first start, quickly neglecting the running game after it got off to a slow start. But at the same time, O'Brien would not let Hackenberg go all out in 3rd-and-long situations, often running with little chance of getting a first down. Also, the tight ends weren't seeing a ton of balls, especially Kyle Carter, which I found odd as well. I love Bill O'Brien, but Saturday was not his finest play-calling game.
Still, Penn State took the lead despite two turnovers — Hackenberg threw a pick in the second quarter — thanks to a stout defense. Syracuse could not get a damn thing going on the ground, as defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and company were getting repeated penetration, allowing Glenn Carson to sniff out the ball carrier time and time again. On top of that, minus a bad breakdown by Adrian Amos on one play, the young secondary stepped up. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was outstanding, flying all over the field, and sophomore corners Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams held their own nicely.
Still, the 6-3 margin didn't provide a ton of excitement. Thankfully it wouldn't take long for the excitement level to turn around in the second half, thanks to Allen Robinson.
After Penn State forced a punt on Syracuse's opening drive in the second half, Robinson entered the game and immediately made an impact. And I mean immediately. On his first play, Hackenberg hit Robinson for a 25-yard completion. On the very next play, the freshman went back to his top target, and Robinson dashed 51 yards for a touchdown, 13-3 Penn State. Two plays, two catches, 76 yards and a touchdown. Allen Robinson is fucking good.
That had the crowd amped and me really pumped, directing a few, "Uh, ohs" at some Cuse fans because our stud was back. Of course, the Orange came right back and scored its first touchdown of the game on the very next drive thanks to the aforementioned blown coverage by Amos, making it a three-point game again.
However, Penn State was able to hold on for the 23-17 victory, as Ficken followed his perfect first half by remaining perfect with a 46-yarder, while Hackenberberg connected with Geno Lewis for a 54-yard touchdown pass thanks to all the attention Robinson rightfully received following his first two plays.
Still, it wasn't all roses for the Nittany Lions. Hackenberg threw an absolutely atrocious interception late in the game, which led to Syracuse's second touchdown that put the outcome in doubt. On the play, Robinson was in single coverage. No matter what the play call was, Hackenberg or O'Brien should have changed the play to make sure it went Robinson's way. No one did, and then Hackenberg showed his greenness, tossing a horrid interception into double coverage. Not good, particularly with Robinson, who had seven catches for 133 yards and a score in just one half of football, in one-on-one coverage. Like I said, not the finest play-calling performance by O'Brien.
On top of that, tight end Matt Lehman went down in a heap without being touched in what looked like an ACL injury. It looked bad. Turns out, Kyle Carter also hurt his arm, and while it's not serious, it could explain his zero catches. Then there was the loss of linebacker Mike Hull, who ran off the field on his own accord but did not return either. That's not good considering he was expected to be the most versatile and potentially best linebacker on the roster.
Still, Penn State was able to come away with the victory in its opener, something that didn't happen last year. The defense was extremely impressive, with Obeng-Agyapong the clear standout. He was definitely the defensive player of the game, if not the player of the game, and his teammates — namely Jones and Carson — were outstanding as well.
On top of that, Hackenberg looked very, very good in his first start despite a couple of freshman mistakes, Robinson was inarguably the best offensive player on the field and the biggest difference maker, and Sam Ficken looks like he definitely has put his struggles from the first half of last season behind him for good.
Not the most impressive game ever, but a fine start to the season. Can't wait to see what the Nittany Lions have in store the rest of the way.