1. James Franklin can match last year's win total with a win on Saturday. What have been the biggest signs of progress during the first two years under Franklin and what are his biggest remaining challenges?
The rapid improvement in overall team athleticism has been remarkable considering Franklin and his staff arrived shortly before signing day in 2014. That stems from outstanding recruiting, which is clearly a significant strong point for Franklin. The biggest challenge is developing the offensive line, an area that was a mess when Franklin arrived thanks to a combination of NCAA sanctions and several years of poor recruiting. Also, some critics — including me — have taken issue with the offensive staff’s ability to adjust on the fly.
2. Like Wes Lunt at Illinois, Christian Hackenberg has a lot of weight on his shoulders. Unlike Lunt, Hackenberg has been hyped as a first-round pick. Hackenberg (51.9 completion percentage, 11 TDs, 2 INTs) hasn't quite put up first-round pick numbers, so is he overhyped? How much of his struggles are due to his supporting cast and how much does he miss Bill O'Brien?
The Hackenberg “hype” has not come from within the Penn State program or even from people who cover the team, but rather from national media types who tend to be plugged in at the NFL level. So folks who typically know what they are talking about are seeing something they like. As a college QB, he has a big arm, is smart, is an excellent leader and is as tough as any passer Penn State has ever had. He has also become a MUCH better decision-maker this season, cutting way down on his interceptions. That said, he still struggles with quick throws and short throws — and really struggles with quick, short throws. His offensive line has not been very good (by PSU’s standards) in either of the last two seasons, but there also are times when Hackenberg’s lack of pocket awareness is just as much of a problem. As a true freshman in 2013, Hackenberg had a veteran offensive line and a dynamic receiver in Allen Robinson. I’d venture to say he has missed them every bit as much as he’s missed O’Brien the last two seasons.
3. Freshman RB Saquon Barkley has two 190-plus yard rushing performances in two Big Ten games already this season. What's made him so good and who are the other playmakers on the Penn State offense?
Barkley can run over, around or through would-be tacklers. When healthy, he very rarely is taken down by the first defender he encounters. And that has really helped mask some of the flaws of Penn State’s offensive line — if one lineman makes a mistake on a play, Barkley can usually overcome that. He’s also bigger than you might think, at 5-foot-11, 222 pounds. When Barkley is at 100 percent — and Franklin said he expects him to be just that this week — this is a different offense. The other emerging star is sophomore wideout Chris Godwin, who is averaging 18.5 yards per reception and has made some spectacular catches for the Lions.
4. The Penn State defense ranks 26th among FBS teams in scoring defense. The Nittany Lions lead the country in sacks and have one of the best defensive linemen in the country in Carl Nassib (12.5 sacks). What's made this defense so good and what has given it fits?
The defensive line is one of the best — if not the best — in the nation. Tackles Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson are both future pros, and the attention they’ve received has allowed Nassib to run wild. Once teams began focusing on Nassib, too, fellow end Garrett Sickels began making more plays. There is good depth up front, as well, so this unit is typically fresh late in games. Running quarterbacks have given PSU the most trouble, in large part because the linebacker corps is so young. Veteran Nyeem Wartman-White was lost for the year (ACL) in the opener. So sophomore Jason Cabinda had to move from Will to Mike LB, and redshirt freshman Troy Reeder stepped in at Will. Both are tough and athletic, but still learning.
5. What is the biggest key to the game for Penn State, who is your X-factor and what is your score prediction?
Hey, you’re sneaking in extra questions here. Let’s take these in order:
• Penn State’s biggest key is having a balanced offensive attack that keeps the Illinois defense honest. In other words, use the pass to set up the run or vice-versa, depending on what the Illini show early.
• My X-factor will be whoever does the placekicking for Penn State, whether it is starter Joey “Big Toe” Julius or backup Tyler Davis. Julius had been inconsistent this year, missing a pair of extra points and going only 2 of 4 on field goals of 40 yards or longer. Franklin has hinted that he may give Davis a shot this week. Regardless, if this game is as close as I expect it to be, one of the kickers will have to step up for Penn State to get a leg up on the Illini.
• As for my prediction, I’ve been over-guesstimating Penn State’s ability to score all season. So I decided to have some fun with this one. In a true defensive struggle between a pair of offensively challenged teams, the Lions eke out an 11-5 victory.