|No. 6 Penn State's potent offense challenge for Akron|
No. 6 Penn State will begin the season hoping to pick up where it left off on offense.
The Nittany Lions averaged 45.6 points in their final seven games as they surprisingly surged to the Big Ten title. They even scored 49 in the Rose Bowl against Southern California, before losing on a last-second field goal.
The main authors of that attack -- junior quarterback Trace McSorley and junior running back Saquon Barkley -- are back as Penn State opens the 2017 season against Akron on Saturday at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa.
"If you had to choose between Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, I think most people are going to say they are going to try to eliminate Saquon Barkley as much as they can and make Trace beat you," said Penn State coach James Franklin.
Whether Akron can stop either is the question.
Barkley set the school's sophomore rushing record with 1,496 yards last season. McSorley set school single-season records for passing yards (3,614), passing touchdowns (29) and total offense (3,979).
"You have to talk about them first because they have the ball in their hands," Akron coach Terry Bowden said on Philly.com.
"If the best player on Penn State's team is the offensive guard, he may kill our defensive lineman. But when your quarterback and your tailback are Heisman candidates, and the ball is going to be in their hands a lot, they can beat you themselves because of their ability to make big plays.
"I think those two, because they're going to touch the ball, because they had great years last year, are the ones that worry you the most."
Even with receiver Chris Godwin in the NFL, McSorley has ample targets, including sophomore wideout Juwan Johnson, who emerged in the offseason and through camp. At 6-foot-4 and 227 pounds, Johnson has the size and speed to create mismatches in an offense that loves to take shots down the field.
Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton is versatile and dependable, just 18 catches shy of breaking the school career record of 179, held by Deon Butler. Wideout Saeed Blacknall and tight end Mike Gesicki both made big plays last season. Gesicki led all Big Ten players at his position with 48 catches for 679 yards and five touchdowns.
McSorley's ability to extend plays with his feet make them all more dangerous.
The Zips allowed 466.0 yards per game last season in a 5-7 season in which they flopped against their one Big Ten foe, losing 54-10 at Wisconsin. Akron was picked to finish fourth in the MAC East this season in a vote of league coaches.
Injuries played a part in the losing record last season, but quarterback Tommy Woodson is back after offseason shoulder surgery. Akron, which returns 17 starters, is also eager to see more of running back Warren Ball, a 2016 Ohio State graduate transfer who was injured in the second game of last season and received a medical redshirt.
The Zips are led defensively by junior linebacker Ulysees Gilbert, who made 122 tackles last season, including 11.5 for loss and four sacks.
As Franklin embarks on his fourth season at Penn State, the Nittany Lions return nine starters on offense and six on defense. The coach said he's been through training camps that felt like a grind, but that wasn't the vibe around the Nittany Lions in August.
"I think more than anything, we've got a group of guys that decided they wanted to practice at a really, really high level every single day and made sure that happened," Franklin said. "There wasn't a day where the coaches left the field angry and frustrated and the players feeling like they could've gave more looking back at it after the fact."