STATE COLLEGE — The hand-wringing may come today. Or tomorrow. Certainly there’s plenty of things for Penn State to work out before the 2014 season opens in Ireland.
But for a few hours Saturday, James Franklin was happy to drink it all in.
He had his first taste of the atmosphere at Beaver Stadium, and he wanted more. The estimated crowd of 72,000 for the annual Blue-White Game was just shy of the school record, but still 30,000 more than the capacity of his former haunt, Vanderbilt Stadium.
“I was very, very impressed,” Penn State’s new coach said after a Blue team stacked with starters beat the White squad 37-0 in the scrimmage. “I’d never been to a game here before, so running out into that stadium was an unbelievably emotional experience for me. Couldn’t be more excited.”
Franklin got an up-close look at his team, spending much of the game between the hash marks behind the offensive huddle during plays.
Pretty much all of the action, though, came on the other side of the ball.
Penn State’s defensive line — a unit Franklin called his deepest and most talented thus far — overwhelmed an injury-plagued offensive line, forcing quarterbacks to scramble and running backs to dance in the backfield.
Nine total sacks. Twelve total punts. The White squad finished with minus-25 net yards on the ground.
“I think the defense is ahead. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Franklin said. “Well, it was either that or we really wanted to work on our punting game.”
Not exactly. Though newcomer Chris Gulla’s 39.1-yard average could use some fine-tuning as well.
“We have work to do,” Franklin said.
Cobbling together a healthy and cohesive offensive line will be at the top of that list. There wasn’t much push back against the Lions’ defensive front, especially the projected starting four of C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes, Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson.
Olaniyan was credited with 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss to lead the group. Senior safety Ryan Keiser had a hand in two turnovers, forcing a fumble and coming up with a leaping interception.
On offense, Wilkes-Barre’s own Eugene Lewis provided arguably the top highlight of the game. The former Wyoming Valley West quarterback took a handoff on a reverse before pulling up and channeling his days with the Spartans by hitting a wide-open Matt Zanellato for a 56-yard score.
There were some strong individual performances from lesser-known names as well.
Walk-on Matthew Baney had one of three interceptions on the day, returning a deflected pass 28 yards for a touchdown.
Running back Cole Chiappialle added his name to a long list of walk-ons to excel in the Blue-White Game. The Pittsburgh-area native rushed for a game-high 63 yards and scored two touchdowns, including a 23-yard burst down the left sideline after spinning out of a tackle.
“He’s had a great spring,” Franklin said. “He’s got great vision. He’s got great toughness and balance. I think that there’s a role for him in the football program.”
Chiappialle took the bulk of the carries with top backs Bill Belton (one carry) and Zach Zwinak (did not play) given a breather on the final day of spring ball.
Likewise, starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg made just a brief cameo, going 4-for-10 for 43 yards before calling it a day in the first quarter.
True freshman Michael O’Connor took the rest of the snaps for the Blue squad, going 11-of-16 for 81 yards. Lewis had the lone touchdown pass of the day.
Most of all, it was a day for new players — and new coaches — to get a feel for things.
For Pennsylvania natives like Franklin (Langhorne) and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop (Oakmont), it made for a memorable first impression.
“When we took our team out there today and took the team through the (Beaver Stadium) gates, that was pretty awesome,” Shoop said. “(Franklin) has worked his entire career to get to a destination job like this, and he’s going to make the most of it.”