The Akron Zips still have a bitter taste in their mouths after dropping four straight to end 2016, unable to capitalize on the program's first bowl win in history. But the start of 2017 doesn't get much easier for Terry Bowden and company.
Akron will travel to Happy Valley to compete in front of over 100,000 fans against the 2016 Big Ten Conference champions — a Penn State team that nearly received a playoff invitation last December.
The Nittany Lions enter the contest ranked No. 6 in the AP Poll. After failing to make a mark in the poll from 2012 through 2015, Penn State strung together nine consecutive victories, narrowly falling in the Rose Bowl, to re-establish itself as one of college football's powers.
While Akron enters the game as 30.5-point underdogs, crazier upsets have occurred on week one. Akron's MAC brethren, a 3-9 Kent State team, hung tight with the Nittany Lions, only trailing 16-13 at halftime in University Park to open the 2016 campaign. The Golden Flashes dropped the game 33-13 but showed plenty of potential against the Big Ten juggernaut in the first 30 minutes of the loss.
Players to Watch
Thomas Woodson, QB, Akron
Woodson, from Monroeville, Pennsylvania, will return to his home state to lead the Zips against James Franklin's Nittany Lions. Woodson already has two seasons as a starter under his belt, but missed plenty of time due to injury in 2016. The quarterback was sidelined completely for four contests and missed the majority of the loss to Bowling Green by injuring his shoulder on the game's opening drive. But the senior with the cannon arm is back and ready for action.
Woodson has no problem slinging the ball for over 300 yards in a game. He led the Akron offense through the air last season, surpassing the 300-yard mark in four of his six complete games last season. He tossed six touchdowns against FCS opponent VMI and another four in a 65-38 shootout victory over the Marshall Thundering Herd. Woodson's favorite targets, Jerome Lane (Giants) and JoJo Natson (Colts) are both fighting to make NFL rosters, so Woodson will have to develop a new set of hands for the 2017 season.
Ulysees Gilbert III, OLB, Akron
The First Team All-MAC star and Zips' defensive MVP returns to the field Saturday. Gilbert faces lofty expectations this season following a standout 2016. Gilbert led the team with 121 total tackles on the year, including 11.5 tackles for loss. He has shown ability to navigate his way to opposing quarterbacks, finishing with four sacks last season — one of the lone bright spots on Akron's disappointing defense. In a 31-27 victory over Kent State, Gilbert stifled the Golden Flashes with a career-high 16 tackles (10 solo) and one sack. Facing a star running back in Saquon Barkley, it is vital that Gilbert contributes a valiant effort to the Zips' run defense on Saturday.
Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Luckily for the Zips, this will be the toughest running back they'll fight against all season long.
Barkley is a Heisman candidate after a breakout 2016 season, and deservedly so. The junior running back possesses a deadly combination of speed and the ability to aggressively shed off tacklers. One of the strongest running backs in the nation has strength superior to many linemen. This summer, Barkley shattered the Penn State power clean record, lifting 405 pounds. He also squatted 525 pounds and ran a 4.33 40-yard dash during a productive offseason. However, Barkley is arguably even more impressive when wearing the blue jersey and black shoes. On the field, he recorded his second-straight 1,000 yard season, rushing for 1,496 and 18 touchdowns. His greatest run of all, his iconic 79-yard scamper from the Rose Bowl, highlights plenty of Barkley's abilities in just one play.
Trace McSorley, QB, Penn State
Over the course 2016, we saw McSorley transform from an average first-year starting quarterback into a gunslinger with a beautiful deep ball. McSorley was imperative as anyone to the Nittany Lions' unlikely run for the conference championship last season. In the 38-31 win over the Badgers, the then-junior completed 22-of-31 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns. During one stretch of the game, McSorley achieved immortality, completing nine straight passes for 241 yards and three scores. The Virginia native is only six feet tall, but he has displayed impressive ability to escape pressure and connect with his targets down field.
Keys to the Game
Do not give up the deep ball early
One of Penn State's greatest weapons is McSorley's deep ball. After its overwhelming success in 2016, expect James Franklin to utilize long, down-the-field routes early and often. These plays are dangerous for unprepared defenses — unaware defensive units can find themselves surrendering seven points in an instant, placing additional pressure on their offenses to score. McSorley averaged 17.8 yards per completion in his final three games in 2016, completing touchdown passes of 34, 45, 59, 33, 40, 70, 18, 30, 11, 72, and 7 yards. Jordan George and Kyron Brown, both redshirt juniors, are Akron's projected corners, so they must focus on not giving up an extra step to Penn State's explosive receiving corps. Tight end Mike Gesicki, one of the best at his position in the nation, is also sure to see several downfield passes headed his way. The strong-armed tight end is a deadly force on jump balls and routes across the middle of the field. The entire Akron coverage unit must play better than its A-game to stop one of the nation's strongest air attacks in order to have any semblance of a chance on the road.
Have a Ball, Akron
Akron returns a secret weapon. Running back Warren Ball is entering his sixth season as an NCAA athlete, taking a medical redshirt last season. The former Ohio State running back transferred to Akron in time for the 2016 season but injured his ankle after playing in just two contests. But Ball recorded 181 yards and one touchdown in those games before missing the Zips' final 10 games. After a long offseason of recovering, Ball — one of Akron's team captains — is finally back to his healthy form. Penn State's defensive end duo of Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan will be replaced by younger linemen, so testing the Nittany Lions' front seven with Ball might be an effective way to create early and effective offense for the Zips.
The game will be played at Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA. This is the season opener for both teams involved. Akron-Penn State kickoff is slated for noon EST and will be viewable on national television with a slot on ABC.
There are not too many people across the country that truly believe Akron will win this contest, and for good reasons. The Zips are outmatched in nearly every facet of this road game and have fared 0-5 against Penn State since 1999, losing by a total score of 204-60. This is arguably the most talented Penn State team Akron has faced, and the Zips earn a week to recover against Arkansas-Pine Bluff of the FCS after this lopsided battle. Watching a healthy Woodson and Ball should be exciting for all Zips fans, but this game will likely play out similar to Akron's matchup with Wisconsin (54-10 loss) a year ago.
Prediction: Penn State 52, Akron 13