Opponent Preview: Penn State

Maryland’s (5-3) next opponent, Penn State (4-3), is coming off a 31-24 overtime loss to Ohio State. The Nittany Lions will host UMD Nov. 1 at Beaver Stadium.

Maryland’s (5-3) next opponent, Penn State (4-3), is coming off a 31-24 overtime loss to Ohio State in State College, Pa. The Nittany Lions, under first-year coach James Franklin, won their first four games, but have now lost three straight to the likes of Northwestern, Michigan and the Buckeyes. PSU will attempt to end the skid Nov. 1 when it hosts the Terps at Beaver Stadium.

Offense

With new offensive coordinator John Donovan at the helm, Penn State technically runs a pro-style offense with its quarterback under center, but in reality it’s more of a multi-faceted attack. The Nittany Lions do not use a traditional fullback, and if they do need an extra lead blocker they shift a tight end to the backfield. Speaking of tight ends, PSU likes to use two, three or even four at the same time, with a couple serving as pass catchers and the other two blockers. On top of that, the Nittany Lions also run a little Wildcat, three-receiver sets and once in awhile they’ll go shotgun.

Of course, some would say Penn State doesn’t really run an offense at all, since the Nittany Lions are ranked 101st out of 125 programs in the FBS in total yards (356.1 per game), 103rd in scoring (21.6 points per game) and 120th in rushing yards per game (82.1). They ‘re picking up 4.8 yards per play, have converted 43 percent of third downs (50-of-117) and are 10-for-26 in scoring redzone touchdowns, although they do have a 31:41 time-of-possession advantage.



Quarterbacks

The most well-known Nittany Lion is highly-touted quarterback Christian Hackenberg (So., 6-4, 234), who has become a lightning rod in Happy Valley. The numbers are not what PSU aficionados expected, and the nine interceptions are a glaring eyesore. But, in fairness to Hackenberg, he’s been sacked more than any other quarterback in the Big Ten (25 times) and has had no time to go through his progressions. More often than not he’s being flushed out of the pocket, or lying on his back after absorbing another hit.

Give him time, though, and Hackenberg could be the real deal. He’s a tall, rocket-armed gunslinger who can spray the ball all over the field and fit it through tight windows. Moreover, he’s a commanding presence who controls the huddle.

At the same time, Hackenberg has been trying to force too many throws, as if he’s attempting carry the load himself. Hackenberg’s getting the ball out quicker than last year, but his reads haven’t always been on-point. He still has a way to go in terms of pre-snap adjustments and field awareness. Hackenberg had a draining pick-six against Northwestern that led to a PSU defeat, and against a down Michigan squad he allowed the Wolverines to seize momentum with another pick-six.

For the season Hackenberg has completed 165-of-276 passes (59.8 percent) for 1,861 yards and six touchdowns and nine interceptions. His quarterback efficiency rating is 117.1. He is coming off a 31-for-49 day for 224 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

But while Hackenberg has struggled at times, there are very few quarterbacks in America who have a safer job. The staff is going to ride and die with their highly-touted sophomore, unless there’s an injury. Penn State does have two freshmen backups, but the goal is to redshirt both of them.

Running Backs

Penn State’s running game has been anemic thus far, their backs averaging just 2.5 yards per attempt and 82.1 yards per game, numbers that rank among the bottom 10 teams in the FBS. Now, much of that falls on the offensive line, but the Nittany Lions don’t have many home-run threats who keep defensive coordinators up at night either.

PSU’s No. 1 back, Bill Belton (Sr., 5-10, 204), has been an enigma during his final season in State College. There are some series where he looks like an upper echelon Big Ten back, and others where he’s slow to the holes and gets caught in the backfield. For the year he’s rushed for 266 yards on 72 carries (3.7 yards-per-carry average), scoring four touchdowns in the process. He’s also pulled in 20 passes for 160 yards and a score. Last week he had nine carries for eight yards and a touchdown, while pulling down two passes for five yards.

Physically, Belton is a do-it-all type of runner with enough size to grind between the tackles, enough speed to hit the edge, and soft enough hands to flair out and catch a pass out of the backfield. He’s not an elite speedster -- in fact, he doesn’t have one true standout quality -- but he’s considered a solid back who can get the job done.

No. 2 back Zach Zwinak (Sr., 6-1, 233) -- who was carted off the field last week and may be out a significant amount of time -- started last year, but he’s been left behind, in a sense. He’s a burly, workhorse runner, the kind who needs 20 to 25 carries to get going and who works well behind downhill, physical offensive lines. Unfortunately for Zwinak and PSU, the O-line doesn’t give him wide lanes, and Zwinak isn’t quite quick or slippery enough to slide through the brief fissures they do crack open. Thus, he’s struggled this year to the tune of 40 carries for 112 yards (2.8 average) and three touchdowns.

The runner better suited to this offense is Akeel Lynch (So., 6-0, 221), who is the fastest running back on the roster. He’s the one guy who can take the top off the defense, evidenced by his 5.2 yards-per-carry average. Lynch hasn’t risen up the depth chart yet, but his numbers (36 attempts for 187 yards) suggest he might be in for a larger workload. He had a dozen carries for 38 yards last week.

Receivers

Penn State’s receivers lack experience, but there’s a lot of upside with this group. Redshirt freshman DaeSean Hamilton (Fr., 6-1, 203) didn’t play last year because of a broken wrist, but he’s been a revelation in 2014. His hands are exceptional, he runs crisp routes and he’s shown the ability to get downfield as well. Hamilton is still learning the position’s nuances, but it’s clear he’s the No. 1 target. This year he has 57 receptions for 686 yards and a touchdown. Last week he pulled down 14 passes for 126 yards.

Right behind Hamilton is Eugene Lewis (So., 6-1, 204), who has upside, but hasn’t been consistent thus far. The staff has muttered about his practice habits and attention to detail, which can lead to mental lapses on game day (he didn’t start against Michigan for this reason). That said, there’s no denying his talent. Lewis , with his long arms and 40-inch vertical, can make the acrobatic, juggling catches, and take the top off the defense with his speed. He’s also come down with a few clutch receptions against Rutgers and UCF that helped spur the PSU attack. For the season Lewis has 33 catches for 523 yards and one touchdown. He recorded one catch for 11 yards against Ohio State.

The third and fourth receivers are pretty much carbon copies of one another. They’re both freshman who are long on potential, but short on experience and fundamentals. Chris Godwin (Fr., 6-2, 210) and Saeed Blacknall (Fr., 6-3, 208) have bright futures what with their athleticism, speed and playmaking ability, but they’re shaky route runners and blockers right now. Godwin has 13 receptions for 112 yards, while Blacknall has seven catches for 60 yards. Last week, Blacknall stepped up and hauled in four passes for 34 yards and a score.

Tight Ends

Penn State doesn’t use its tight ends quite as much under James Franklin as it did with Bill O’Brien at the helm, but the Nittany Lions still run multiple guys out there pretty much every play. And the clear No. 1 is Jesse James (Jr., 6-7, 271), who is a freak athlete that runs exceptionally well for his size. James has big, strong hands, solid speed, is tough in traffic and can make the acrobatic catch. Not to mention he’s a willing blocker as well. He has 22 receptions for 225 yards and two scores through seven games. Last week he pulled down four balls for 22 yards.

Another specimen who is coming along is Mike Gesicki (Fr., 6-6, 237), a former basketball player who made the smooth transition to the gridiron. Gesicki only has seven catches for 46 yards this year, but he’s one of the offense’s best athletes and potentially one of their top threats.

Much was expected out of PSU’s third option, Kyle Carter (Sr., 6-3, 250), who hasn’t really seized his opportunity. He’s a solid blocker, and has acted as a fullback at times, but has not shown up much in the reception department. A decent athlete, Carter has eight catches for 74 yards this year.

Last but not least, there’s Brent Wilkerson (Jr., 6-4, 240), a former DeMatha Stag (Hyattsville, Md.). Wilkerson has not really emerged as a receiving threat and is mainly used as a blocker.

Offensive Line

The Penn State offense has had its issues, but he main culprit has been the five guys up front. PSU had just one returning offensive lineman coming into 2014, and two of the four new starters are defensive converts. Not to mention the scholarship sanctions sapped the Nittany Lions’ depth, which they felt most along the offensive line.

The numbers aren’t pretty: 2.5 yards per carry (bottom five in the FBS) and 25 sacks allowed (bottom five in the FBS). Penn State would love to feature a balanced, well-rounded attack, but so far the O-line has not allowed the Nittany Lions to do so.

It certainly didn’t help matters that left guard Miles Dieffenbach (Sr., 6-3, 303) blew out his knee in the spring and is just now working his way back into the swing of things. He was supposed to come back for the Ohio State bout, and very well could be in the lineup against Maryland full-time. If, so it would provide a huge boost to Penn State’s front five, as Dieffenbach would immediately become the Nittany Lions’ second-best trenchman.

The No. 1 trenchman would be left tackle Donovan Smith (Jr., 6-5, 335), the squad’s only returning offensive line starter. He’s a long-armed, physical tackle who moves well and has performed admirably in the past as both a blindside blocker and downhill run blocker. This season, though, he hasn’t done as well, and speculation is it’s because he’s still developing chemistry with the new left guard. Smith and Dieffenbach worked well together on combo blocks and the like, but this year the former Owings Mills (Md.) tackle has had to compensate for the loss of his linemate.

Currently, Penn State is rotating through two left guards, and neither has done enough to supplant the other. Which really isn’t their fault, since one of them, Brendan Mahon (Fr., 6-4, 304), is a redshirt freshman who is still getting acclimated to Big Ten line play, and the other is Derek Dowrey (So., 6-3, 324), who just shifted over from defensive tackle this year. Needless to say, they’ve had their share of problems.

Center Angelo Mangiro (Jr., 6-3, 312) is also learning a new trade. Mangiro lined up at guard his first few years on campus, and he’s still adapting to the center spot . Line calls, blitz pickup and quarterback-center exchange have all been issues for Mangiro.

The right guard, Brian Gaia (So., 6-3, 297), is yet another convert. Gaia, a Gilman (Baltimore, Md.) graduate, came to Penn State as a defensive tackle but was moved to guard right before spring practice. Like the others, he’s still picking up the position and learning its finer points.

Finally, at right tackle, there’s Andrew Nelson (Fr., 6-5, 306), who is a redshirt freshman with a lot of upside. Nelson is a big, strong grinder who can get downhill, but it’s still just his second year in State College. Nelson has had some footwork and hand placement issues that he’ll need to get ironed out.

Defense

Penn State’s saving grace has been its defense, which operates out of a base 4-3, but rarely shows a traditional look under defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. The Nittany Lions adeptly move from four down linemen to a 3-4 depending on down and distance, while they’ll employ plenty of nickel, dime and cover-2 looks too. Their cornerbacks are allowed to press and play bump-and-run, but they’ll also sit back in a zone based on circumstances.

What makes the PSU defense particularly effective, though, is its well-designed blitz packages. Penn State has traditionally been a gap-control squad, but the Nittany Lions have enough athletes this year where they can send linebackers inside and outside; shoot safeties up the gap; bring corners off the edge; overload one side; crossfire two backers; and the like.

The downside is Penn State can get burned up top when the opposing offense sniffs out the blitz, but so far the Nittany Lions have gotten the job done. PSU is allowing 17.4 points per game (ninth in the FBS), 284.7 yards per game (seventh in the FBS), recorded 19 sacks (31st in the FBS) and picked off nine passes (26th in the FBS). Teams average just 2.44 yards per carry on them (third in the FBS), and only 201.3 passing yards per game (28th in the FBS). The Nittany Lions have held teams to a 35.5 percent third-down conversion rate (37th in the FBS) and 70.8 percent on redzone scores (13th in the FBS).

Defensive Line

There were questions whether or not there would be a dropoff with PSU’s defensive line since Larry Johnson bolted for Ohio State, but that has not been the case with Sean Spencer at the helm (witness 2.4 yards per carry allowed and 19 sacks). Penn State gets after it up front, and what’s truly scary for opponents is the Nittany Lions feature seven or eight ends and tackles who could start for most other programs.

At defensive end, Deion Barnes (Jr., 6-4, 250) has had a bounce back year after a down 2013. Barnes has above average quickness and can press the pocket, though he could stand to perform better in run defense since he tends to overpursue. Even so, Barnes can be disruptive on pretty much every play, and he’s caused plenty of problems for opposing tackles in 2014. He has 30 stops, 6.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three quarterback hits this year.

The opposite end, C.J. Olaniyan (Sr., 6-3, 259), doesn’t have the pass-rush skills Barnes possesses, but he might be the more consistent all-around player. Coming off a breakout 2013, Olaniyan has taken more strides in 2014, developing into an edge setter, as well as someone who can collapse the pocket. Physically imposing and powerful, Olaniyan has long arms, a muscle-bound frame and a strong base. So far he has 24 stops, 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.

Both of PSU’s backup ends rotate in quite a bit, and would probably be top dogs on most other Big Ten lines. Both Brad Bars (Sr., 6-3, 267) and Carl Nassib (Jr., 6-6, 263) are potent run stuffers who excel at the point of attack. Not only do they provide important minutes when Olaniyan and Barnes are catching their breath, but there is little lost production when they’re on the field.

On the interior, Anthony Zettel (Jr., 6-5, 276) plays the 3-technique after shifting over from defensive end. He’s a true backfield buster who has superior strength, plenty of athleticism (he’s been known to knock down passes at the line), and uncanny speed for a big man. Zettel’s a playmaker, and he’s seemingly in opposing backfields at least once each series. For the season he has 21 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, eight pass defenses, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. He had a pick-six against Ohio State last week when PSU dropped into zone and Zettel took advantage.

Zettel works in tandem with Austin Johnson (So., 6-4, 312), who plays the 1-technique. Johnson doesn’t show up in the stat book as much as his fellow defensive tackle, but he’s no less valuable. Johnson’s a true space eater, and he excels at maintaining gap integrity and taking on multiple blocks to free up the linebackers. He has 21 stops, 2.5 tackles for loss, four knockdowns and a fumble recovery this year.

Just like the defensive ends, Penn State features at least two tackles who would probably be starting elsewhere. Tarrow Barney (Jr., 6-1, 290) has improved each year since arriving on campus, and this season he’s a main rotational player who has made numerous plays behind the line. He has two tackles for loss and two sacks in 2014.

Meanwhile, Parker Conthren (Fr., 6-5, 290) has been a pleasant surprise as a redshirt freshman. He’s stepped right in for either Zettel or Johnson, and more than held his own up front. Like Barney, he’s had several backfield stuffs in 2014.

And finally there’s Tyrone Smith (Sr., 6-4, 282), a former walk-on who gets after it as a blue-collar, gritty run stuffer.

Linebackers

Penn State’s linebacker core doesn’t have as much depth as the D-line, but the starters are awfully good. These guys clean up and are one of the main reasons opposing rushing totals have been anemic.

The Nittany Lions’ best player, who epitomizes the “Linebacker U” label, is middle linebacker Mike Hull (Sr., 6-0, 225). Hull’s undersized, but that hasn’t stopped him from racking up tackles at a dizzying rate. He’s exceptionally strong (he defeated PSU’s left tackle, Donovan Smith, in a bench-press competition), fleet of foot and highly instinctive. Moreover, Hull quarterbacks the defense, and sets the tone with his energy and endless motor. So far in 2014, Hull leads the way with 83 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, five pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble.

At weakside backer, Nyeem Wartman (So., 6-1, 238) moves really well for his size and is PSU’s do-everything defender. Wartman is deft enough to play coverage, powerful enough to take on blocks, sound enough to wrap up without allowing leaky yards, and quick enough to rush the passer. A testament to Wartman’s importance: He was unable to play against Northwestern due to an injured hand, and the Wildcats took advantage in a big way. Wartman has 35 tackles and one tackle for loss in 2014.

The other outside linebacker, or the “field” backer in PSU parlance, is Brandon Bell (So., 6-1, 228). There were concerns about him coming in, but so far he has played well. Bell does struggle against the pass since he’s not very fast, but he’s an above-average run defender who wraps well.

In fact, Bell’s size and skill-set suggests he’s better suited for inside linebacker, but due to aforementioned depth concerns the Nittany Lions need him at that field linebacker spot. So to protect Bell, PSU often removes him during obvious passing situations and inserts another safety or cornerback. He has 27 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, one breakup and, ironically, an interception this year.

The two main backup outside linebackers are Jason Cabinda (Fr., 6-1, 249) and Von Walker (So., 5-11, 213). Cabinda is a solid run defender, but he’s still learning how to play in space. Walker, meanwhile, is a walk-on who has had his ups and downs.

The No. 2 inside linebacker is Gary Wooten (So., 6-2, 238), a prototypical MIKE who has shown plenty of promise. The problem is he’s backing up Mike Hull, so he doesn’t get to see the field much.

Defensive Backs

PSU’s pass defense is allowing 201.3 yards per game and 12.0 yards per catch, both numbers ranking in top quarter of the FBS. The Nittany Lions boast plenty of athletes in their secondary, and that allows the corners and safeties to take chances and be aggressive.

At one corner spot is Jordan Lucas (Jr., 6-0, 198), who has the most pro potential in the secondary. He’s fast, physical, loose and agile -- plus a really good tackler out on the edge. But sometimes Lucas relies on his pure talent instead of his fundamentals, leading to questions about his discipline. Lucas freelances in coverage, and heady receivers can make him look silly with double-moves and disguised routes. That said, he has lockdown potential if he can put it all together. For the season Lucas has 26 tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and 14 pass defenses.

Trevor Williams (Jr., 6-1, 190), the opposite corner, is the more consistent of the two right now. The former Calvert Hall (Towson, Md.) star is a converted receiver, and in the last couple weeks has started to look comfortable after getting burned early on. Williams has good measurables and is a stellar athlete, so as he continues to hone his fundamentals he should be a standout corner. Williams has 16 tackles, two interceptions and six pass defense this year.

Since PSU does move between nickel and dime packages, the Nos. 3 and 4 corners see extensive time. The main rotational guy is Grant Haley (Fr., 5-9, 185), a highly-rated recruit who should be a star down the line. Haley’s not tall, but he’s the fastest player on the team with the athleticism to match. The freshman does commit mental errors at times, but he’s reached the point where PSU’s staff inserts him early and often. Haley has nine tackles and two breakups in 2014.

The other corner to note is Christian Campbell (Fr., 6-1, 187), who plays in sub-packages. He’s not quite the athlete Haley is, but he’s big and physical with a good amount of upside.

While the cornerbacks are vastly talented, the key cog in the secondary may be free safety Ryan Keiser (Sr., 6-1, 204). He’s not a primetime athlete, and he’s not the swiftest safety out there, but he’s always in position to make a play. Keiser had two game-clinching interceptions in 2013 against Michigan and Wisconsin, and has continued to excel in 2014. Granted, teams loaded with elite wideouts can probably expose Keiser’s limited range, but he’s going to make his share of plays just by reading and anticipating. Keiser has 25 tackles, five breakups and a pick in 2014.

The strong safety is yet another Calvert Hall product, Adrian Amos (Sr., 6-0, 211). Under Bill O’Brien, Amos lined up at corner, but he’s shifted down to safety under James Franklin, and it seems to be his natural fit. Amos runs well enough to cover in space, but his frame (thick, sinewy) suggests he’s better suited for strong safety. And indeed, Amos has proven to be a physical, rough defender who hits hard (he has 20 tackles and a tackle for loss). Amos hasn’t dropped off when he’s tracking deep, either, as he has two picks and four pass defenses so far.

The main rotational safety, who sees time in nickel packages and started last week against Ohio State, is former Wise (Upper Marlboro, Md.) standout Marcus Allen (Fr., 6-2, 198). Allen has above-average range, is a sound tackler and looks to have natural instincts for the position. The staff trusts him enough to send him in for either Amos or Keiser, which speaks to Allen’s early development. Allen has 15 stops and four breakups in 2014.

Special Teams

Penn State has one of the best kickers in the Big Ten in Sam “Kickin’” Ficken (Sr., 6-2, 191). An accurate booter with range out to 55 yards, Ficken has been almost automatic this year. He’s 13-of-15 on field goals, and the only two he missed were blocked (PSU’s line failed to pick up the rusher). Ficken has also excelled on kickoffs, where he’s had about half his boots sail out of the endzone.

It’s a 180-degree difference with PSU’s punting game. Chris Gulla (Fr., 6-0, 200) does not have a big leg, and his net punt average of 33.4 yards ranks near the bottom of the FBS. It hasn’t helped that Gulla has shanked a couple boots as well, which has driven down his average. Gulla has been OK dropping punts inside the 20-yard line (nine so far this year), but for a team that wants to play field position ball, PSU would probably prefer he send it 50 yards downfield, especially when the offense can’t get past it’s own 30.

The Nittany Lions did try backup Daniel Pasquariello (Fr., 6-0, 199), who did well in practice, but he made a major mistake against Northwestern -- he sent a line drive punt straight down the middle, which was returned 40-plus yards -- and was immediately replaced. Pasquariello is an Australian with a big leg, but he’s still adjusting to American football.

As for the return men, Grant Haley (Fr., 5-10, 185) handles the kicks and is averaging 21.1 yards per return with a long of 44. Haley’s an awesome athlete with plenty of speed, but he’s yet to bust out as of yet.

The punt returner, Jesse Della Valle (Sr., 6-1, 207), had two solid bringbacks, including a 41 yarder. But most times Della Valle has opted for a fair catch, as he only has nine returns all year, averaging 8.0 yards per.

In terms of their coverage units, the Nittany Lions are only allowing 7.0 yards per punt bringback, although some of that’s because Gulla’s boots have been so short opposing return men don’t have much room to run. PSU’s kick coverage, meanwhile, is ranked 117th nationally at 25.24 yards allowed per return, so teams with dangerous returners could potentially take advantage.

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