Every week at AllHoosiers.com we will have a scouting report on the team that Indiana will face that week in the form of a Q&A with a beat writer from that team.
For Saturday’s ninth game of the season against Penn State, Mark Brennan, site publisher for the Penn State Scout.com site, has accepted my invitation to talk about the Nittany Lions by answering the following five questions.
Here is our ninth Scouting the Opponent Q&A with an opposing beat writer.
1. How is Penn State’s psyche at this point? Won the first four, lost the next four including a couple of really tough late game losses. The Lions sit at 4-4 but one would think with facing Indiana, Temple and Illinois the next three games that they have to feel like they’ll still end up in a decent bowl game. How is Penn State mentally after these last four games?
MB: With the media, James Franklin has been even more upbeat than usual this week. That’s saying something for a guy whose favorite word is “awesome.” I’d have to imagine that same attitude is just as prevalent during his interactions with the team. Not that Franklin would ever admit it, but to me it seems he is over-accentuating the positive vibes because he is concerned that the Lions are in fact down a bit. As you note, it is not just that they lost four straight, but also that they had every opportunity to win the last three. The Ohio State and Maryland losses at home were both serious kicks to the gut.
The mere possibility of playing in a bowl may be what turns around this season. (Well, that and facing three not-very-good opponents before Michigan State comes calling to close the regular season). Remember, when this season began, PSU was still under an NCAA imposed postseason ban. But that has since been lifted. So as rough as the last six weeks have been (two byes were mixed in with the four defeats), there is still a motivational carrot hanging out there.
2. Who would you say is the best running back that Penn State faced to this point and how did the Nittany Lions fare against him? I’ve seen the impressive rushing defense numbers and the 2.3 yards per carry really jumps out, but I’m curious what the level of running back this defense has faced? Obviously with numbers like that they haven’t given up many big plays and a guy like Tevin Coleman is a big play waiting to happen. How do you see that match up playing out?
MB: Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott is the best back PSU has faced, and he carried 26 times for 109 yards and a score in a double overtime game. But the Lions haven’t seen anyone with the sort of breakaway speed Coleman has. The longest run this season against the Lions was 25 yards, and that was by Michigan QB Devin Gardner. I will not be at all surprised if Coleman eclipses that at least once and finishes right around the century mark, as he did last year. I just think it is going to take him a lot of carries to get there. Last season, Coleman had a 44-yard gain and finished with 92 yards vs. PSU. But that was on 20 carries -- meaning he had 44 yards on one attempt and a total of 48 (if my math is correct) on the other 19. Penn State’s front seven this year is much better and faster than it was last season. Meanwhile, it does not appear as if Coleman is surrounded by the sort of weapons he was in 2013.
3. Are the low rushing numbers because Penn State doesn’t have a great back or because it simply chooses to pass the ball and has done so effectively? Also, how concerning is the team’s scoring average? Is this a case of not moving the ball effectively or with turning it over in key situations?
MB: Every serious issue with this offense can be traced to the rebuilt line. Eight weeks into the season, the storyline has been beaten to death here, but only because it is true. So at the risk of repeating what I told the Rutgers, Ohio State and Maryland folks (and plagiarizing myself)… I guess it would be easy to blame the O-line mess on the NCAA sanctions, and in truth, they are partly to blame. Depth was bound to be a significant issue somewhere, and this turned out to be it. But there is more to it than just that. The O-line recruiting at the end of the Paterno era was a disaster, and then Bill O’Brien came in and -- even before the NCAA sanctions hit -- he griped that the Paterno staff had used too many scholarships on the offensive line.
So when four seniors with starting experience graduated following last season, and a fifth decided to give up his final year to enter the NFL, everyone knew the O-line was in trouble. Then a couple of scholarship guys were run from the team due to off-field issues. Then returning starting guard Miles Dieffenbach blew out an ACL in the spring.
That left PSU with one lineman (tackle Donovan Smith) who had ever started a game. The Lions began the season starting Smith, two redshirt freshmen (left guard Brendan Mahon and right tackle Andrew Nelson), a converted defensive tackle (right guard Brian Gaia) and a former backup guard (center Angelo Mangiro). When Smith was injured against Ohio State … stay with us here … the right tackle moved to left tackle, the center moved to right tackle and a raw redshirt sophomore was plugged in at center. Once opponents realized they did not have to stack the box to stop the PSU ground game (pretty much after the 4-0 start), the offense in general was in trouble.
Can things get better? Long term, yes. Franklin ID’d this as a major area of concern as soon as he arrived at PSU and made O-linemen a focal point of his last class and future classes. But none of the kids who signed last February are physically ready to step in now. Short term, the best hope is if Smith can return (PSU has given no indication what the injury even is, let alone a possible return date) and if Dieffenbach (who has been practicing lately) gets back into game form before the end of the season.
4. Thirty sacks allowed seems like a crazy number. What has been the big problem there? Injuries, inexperience? How would you characterize this Penn State offensive line? And how is Hackenberg holding up through it all?
MB: See above for the reasons behind the sacks and the struggles of the O-line. With respect to Hackenberg, there has been some obvious frustration there, which is understandable considering he is still only 19 and that he has been on the receiving end of all 30 sacks. There are a few areas where he must improve.
First, too often he relies on his big arm to make near-impossible throws. That has led to frequent interceptions, and put the otherwise strong defense in some tough short-field situations. Hackenberg has gotten better at this of late, but still takes too many chances (in an attempt to get SOMETHING going for the offense). Also in this department, he sometimes holds the ball too long rather than firing it out of bounds. Second, he and the staff have to do a better job with pre-snap reads. Something is not clicking there. Either he has to be better or there has to be more checking with the sideline. Finally, he has to be less demonstrative when things go wrong.
All of that said, none of these things would be considered major issues if he had an even average offensive line and running game to keep opposing defenses from focusing so much on him.
5. Finally, we always ask for opposing publishers and beat writers to weigh in with their game prediction. Myself I would have thought this was a game that Indiana could win if the quarterback situation was stable. In the aftermath of the Nate Sudfeld injury though, there just isn’t the same offensive continuity. My guess is that Penn State snaps its four-game losing streak. How do you think this one will play out?
MB: I’m with you. Sudfeld would have made this a different game. Last year, he obviously was a much more dangerous weapon against Penn State than Coleman was. I’m just not sure how an offense that managed a total of 35 passing yards in its last two outings is going to be effective against a defense that held an explosive attack like Ohio State’s to 17 points in regulation (and zero in the second half).
The more I look at IU’s pass defense and sack numbers -- especially in the conference -- the more this shapes up as a game where Hackenberg finally gets some time and can find a groove. I’m also admittedly throwing a bit of a Hail Mary here, going with a wide spread to go against the grain and try to get back into a season-long pick ’em contest I do on a local TV show. So…
Penn State 27, Indiana 10.
I’ll be in Bloomington this weekend, so Hoosier fans are welcome to boo if they see me. I’ll still shake their hands, though.
Again, thanks to Mark Brennan for sharing his expertise today with us at AllHoosiers.com.Daily Feature: It’s Prediction Time
Daily Feature: How They Fared
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