|No. 5 Penn State tunes up against Georgia State|
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State prime-time games, under the lights, are usually reserved for vaunted Big Ten foes and big stakes.
Saturday night's tilt against Georgia State (0-1) at Beaver Stadium is merely a final tune-up for the No. 5 Nittany Lions, who will begin their pursuit of another Big Ten championship next week at Iowa.
Penn State (2-0) is coming off a 33-14 home victory against Pitt.
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said afterward his team played a "complete game," but then found teaching points when reviewing the performance.
"When you watch a tape, there's some areas, obviously, we could have played better in," Franklin said. "But I do feel like that all three phases played good enough to win, is probably a better way to describe a complete game."
So far, the Nittany Lions have dominated Akron and pulled away from Pitt. They've done so by leaning on a pair of Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.
Georgia State of the Sun Belt Conference figures to take cues from other teams as its picks its poison and tries to shut down Barkley and his frenetic running style. The Panthers will also have to contend with him as a receiver and kickoff returner.
Barkley is rushing for 130 yards per game and has three touchdowns. He is also the team's second-leading receiver with seven catches for 99 yards and a score. Franklin this week committed to keeping him as the team's primary kick returner.
But feeding the junior tailback isn't all of what Franklin is trying to do.
"You'd love to say we're just going to hand the ball off to Saquon Barkley 35 times a game, but that's not what we do," Franklin said. "We have checks. We have places to go with the ball."
Instead, Nittany Lions offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead is utilizing all his playmakers and will look to do the same against a Georgia State defense that gave up 383 yards in its opener, a 17-10 home loss to Tennessee State in the debut of Shawn Elliott as head coach.
From McSorley to Barkley, and with tight end Mike Gesicki and wideouts DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson in between, Moorhead has plenty of options if the Panthers opt to stack the box all night.
It'll be up to McSorley to shake off the self-described "jitters" that contributed to his most uneven game as a starter. The junior completed just 15 of 29 passes with an interception last week. He did throw three touchdowns, however.
Elliott was an offensive coach at South Carolina for seven seasons and drew up the team's offense for the last five. He said earlier this week that the Nittany Lions would match up "very favorably to many SEC teams" he's faced.
"This is a great opportunity for us to go up there against one of the top-ranked teams in the country and measure ourselves right up against the very, very best," Elliott said. "Whether it be their coaching staff or their players on offense and defense, or their special teams. So we've got a lot at stake for our football program here."
So do the Nittany Lions, who are aiming for a spot in the College Football Playoff after going to the Rose Bowl last season.
"I think the playoffs are one factor that you've got to look at when it comes to scheduling," Franklin said when asked about scheduling the Sun Belt foes.
"But I think the most important thing you can do year-in and year-out is schedule in a way that's going to give your team the best chance to win your conference, and then everything else will take care of it from there."
Those playmakers give Penn State a shot to do that.
Gesicki has caught 16 passes for 230 yards and seven touchdowns in his last five games, a big target over the middle and on quick throws in the red zone. Johnson, a sophomore, is finding his footing as another physical weapon and big-play threat.
The defense has forced 16 punts on 25 possessions and forced four turnovers. Wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins has gotten a chance to show his dangerous side on special teams, with a punt return touchdown.
Georgia State was 3-9 last season. The Panthers are 0-8 in their history against Power Five conference teams, although it had a close call in a 23-17 loss at Wisconsin last season.