Opponent Preview: Penn State

Following its bye week, Maryland (2-4) will attempt to start the Mike Locksley era on the right foot as the Terps host Penn State Oct. 24 for a 3:30 p.m. bout in M&T Bank Stadium.

Following its bye week, Maryland (2-4) will attempt to start the Mike Locksley era on the right foot as the Terps host Penn State Oct. 24 for a 3:30 p.m. bout in M&T Bank Stadium. The Nittany Lions (5-2) are coming off a 38-10 loss at Ohio State, but had been playing relatively well until running into the No. 1 Buckeyes. After an opening-week loss at Temple, head coach James Franklin’s squad ran off five straight wins against the likes of Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and Indiana. PSU is 0-2 on the road after last week’s defeat, however, so how they respond in Baltimore, away from the confines of Beaver Stadium, remains to be seen.

And, quite frankly, even in victory Penn State has not been a model of consistency thus far. Even during the course of a game, the Nittany Lions can morph from world-beaters into bottom-feeders, impressive scoring drives immediately followed by botched reads/mental lapses (mainly on offense).

They will attempt to cobble together a complete 60-minute effort against a Terps’ squad that showed some signs of life two weeks ago.

Offense

Penn State’s offense hasn’t varied much from its traditional pro-style, complete with quarterback under center; two backs; and three receivers. The Nittany Lions will sub out their slot receiver in favor of a tight end/H-back, but they don’t typically employ many exotic looks.

Second-year offensive coordinator John Donovan is in charge of a unit that averages 23 points (103rd in the FBS) and 340 yards (111th in the FBS) per game, although Franklin has taken a more active play-calling role ever since PSU’s anemic effort against Temple.  The result has been a fairly balanced attack (OSU game notwithstanding) predicated on running the football in order to set up the pass. The Nittany Lions have been more aggressive down the field compared to their recent past, but they’d ideally like to establish the run, wearing opponents down, before going up top.

Through seven games, PSU is averaging 177.4 passing yards (106th in the FBS) and 162.3 rushing yards (76th in the FBS) per outing. The Nittany Lions have only turned the ball over five times and have been penalized for a respectable 42 yards per game. That said, they’ve converted just 28 percent of third downs (125th in the FBS), have a 29:36 time of possession (78th in the FBS) and have surrendered 24 sacks (121st in the FBS). Moreover, Penn State has only turned 12 of their 25 redzone attempts into touchdowns.

Quarterbacks

It’s safe to say Christian Hackenberg (Jr., 6-4, 228) has improved considerably after a trying 2014 campaign. The strong-armed junior had a couple shaky performances early during the season when he rushed throws and wasn’t particularly accurate, but since then he’s been fine. Granted, Hackenberg is good for one or two mishaps every game, while the wayward throws do crop up every now and again (see: 53 percent completion rate), but overall he’s made strides during his third year in State College, Pa.

The game seems to be slowing down for Hackenberg, as he doesn’t rush throws as much, while he’s displaying more confidence down the field. When Hackenberg’s on cue, he can hit receivers in stride, readily complete the deep ball and find targets through tight windows. He’s not the most mobile gunslinger out there (part of the reason he’s been sacked 24 times), and active defenses can rattle him, but Hackenberg has the ability to pick apart leaky units that leave areas exposed.

For the season, Hackenberg has completed 94-of-177 attempts for 1,206 yards and eight touchdowns against two interceptions.  He’s coming off a 7-for-13, 120-yard, one-score game against Ohio State.

Backup quarterback Trace McSorley (Fr., 6-0, 196) is more dynamic and has more zone-read capabilities than Hackenberg, but he only sees the field during garbage time. McSorley has completed his one pass attempt all year, good for four yards.

Running Backs

Part of Penn State’s early offensive issues stemmed from having its top two running backs, Saquon Barkley (Fr., 5-11, 222) and Akeel Lynch (Jr., 5-11, 220), sustain injuries against San Diego State, the latter a significant leg injury that could knock him out the rest of 2015.

Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, they didn’t lose both of their breadwinners for the campaign’s duration. Barkley is expected back for the Maryland game now that he looks fully recovered from an ankle sprain.

One of the better running backs Penn State has featured since the early 2000s, the freshman Barkley has come as advertised. He hits the holes quickly, makes NFL-style cutbacks, has terrific downfield explosiveness and possesses first-rate change-of-direction speed. Barkley’s the type of back who can run over a defender or leave him flat-footed, deking by with a sidestep or a cut-and-go. Either way, he creates yards, sometimes when it appears all lanes/openings are clogged. On top of that, Barkley blocks well, rare for a freshman tailback. Barkley will only improve as he adds more strength and power over the next couple years.

The question is, How will the ankle injury affect him? Will he have the same make-you-miss he did prior to the injury? Will he display the same acceleration and cutting ability? Well, he certainly looked fine in the Ohio State game, rolling up 194 yards on 26 carries.

For the season, Barkley has 567 yards on 68 attempts (8.3 yards per carry), while he’s scored three touchdowns.

With Akeel Lynch out, PSU’s two freshmen backups have seen their reps increase. Neither Nick Scott (Fr., 5-11, 198) nor Mark Allen (Fr., 5-6, 181) project as top-flight backs, but both have been serviceable. They don’t possess much shake or elite speed, but they get downhill and can grind out yards when Barkley needs a breather.

Scott has 28 total carries for 128 yards and a score, while Allen, a former DeMatha Stag (Hyattsville, Md.), has 75 yards on 25 totes.

Penn State’s fullback, meanwhile, may get on the field for about 5 percent of the snaps. While the Nittany Lions are a traditional pro-set, they prefer to employ their tight ends/H-backs as blockers rather than a fullback. But on the rare occasions Franklin sends him in, former walk-on Dom Salomone (Jr., 5-10, 242) has been a solid, if not spectacular, hole opener.

Receivers

While Penn State will rotate out its slot in favor of a tight end, the Nittany Lions do like to get all three of their receivers on the field.

The No. 1 threat, though, is wideout Chris Godwin (So., 6-1, 208), who has taken the next step during his second year in Happy Valley. Hackenberg’s go-to-guy, Godwin’s quick off the line; explosive down the field; and possesses reliable hands. Godwin can make the circus catch overtop defenders and range over the middle to pull down passes in traffic.

He has 30 receptions for 493 yards and a touchdown this year. Godwin pulled down three throws for 103 yards last week.

While Godwin’s been the bell-cow thus far, DaeSean Hamilton (So., 6-1, 206) was PSU’s “main man” in 2014. In fact, Hamilton practically mirrors his fellow outside receiver in terms of physically abilities. Hamilton isn’t quite as quick as Godwin, but he can still take the top off defenses and out-muscle/out-leap defenders in the air. He also has shore hands, runs crisp routes and has a knack for finding openings in defenses, making him a reliable third-down/redzone target.

Hamilton’s pulled in 19 passes for 220 yards and three scores this year. He had two catches for 13 yards and a touchdown against Ohio State.

After Godwin and Hamilton, however, there’s a significant production dropoff. Geon Lewis (Jr., 6-1, 205) began the season well, but has tailed off of late. If he can stay consistent, Penn State’s slot receiver is a proven playmaker who presents a matchup problem. Lewis isn’t the athlete Godwin and Hamilton are, nor does he have their speed or reliable route running/hands, but if defenses sag off he can make a play. Look for Lewis during third-down situations, roaming the middle of the field and sitting down in-between a zone..

Lewis, though, only has six catches for 65 yards this year.

With Lewis fading at times, it’s important to note Penn State’s two freshmen slots, DeAndre Thompkins (Fr., 5-11, 185) and Brandon Polk (Fr., 5-9, 170). Thompkins hasn’t caught a pass yet, but he’s shown speed and acceleration after a few carries.

Polk, meanwhile, is 4.3 40-yard-dash speedster with outstanding quickness and moves. An exciting playmaker, the Nittany Lions will get him the ball on jet sweeps and receiver screens, letting Polk go to work in the open field. Penn State also likes to use him as a decoy, as Polk typically garners a/defensive attention when he enters the game.

Polk has nine carries for 122 yards and a touchdown, to go along with four catches for 50 yards and another score.

Tight Ends

The Nittany Lions’ tight ends also function as H-backs, lining up anywhere from the backfield, the slot, or out wide. Much of the time, they serve as lead blockers for Barkley and Co. The rest, they’re running down the seam, providing a sizable target for Hackenberg.

PSU’s top two tight ends get equal reps, both bringing different skill-sets to the table. Mike Gesicki (So., 6-6, 255) is known more for his receiving, showing the ability to run downfield and stretch the defense. Gesicki hasn’t always had the most reliable hands, dropping a few catchable balls, but he’s the most potent receiving threat the Nittany Lions have (as far as tight ends are concerned).

For the season, Gesicki has nine receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown. He did not record a catch last week.

While Gesicki is considered the better receiver, Kyle Carter (Sr., 6-3, 252) actually has the same amount of receptions (nine for 99 yards). Even so, Carter’s mainly a blocker, routinely out-leveraging opponents and stalemating blitzers. Once in awhile he’ll fail to pick up a linebacker in pass pro, but he’s mostly been reliable.

Now, it’s possible Penn State’s tight-end unit could get a boost this week. The oft-injured Adam Breneman (So., 6-4, 245) was a touted talent coming out of high school and could be a real receiving threat. If healthy and up to speed, Breneman could be targeted a few times down the seam.

Offensive Line

Penn State’s offensive line has received mixed reviews through seven games. While they’ve paved the way for a ground attack that’s picking up 4.6 yards per carry, the front five has also surrendered 24 sacks, ranking them among the five worst pass-protection units in the FBS. 

Left tackle Paris Palmer (Jr., 6-7, 302) may serve as a microcosm for the entire unit. The junior-college transfer did not start well, surrendering sacks; failing to generate a push; and giving ground at the point of attack. Palmer’s progressed to the point where he’s at least been decent, but occasionally he’ll still allow defenders to get into his body or beat him off the ball a couple times each outing. Given his length and athleticism, Palmer has potential, but it’s yet to completely translate on game day.

The left guard, Derek Dowrey (Jr., 6-3, 321), has mostly been steady in run and pass pro. Dowrey isn’t a dominant force, but he plugs away and does his job. He'll surrender pressures or fail to generate a push at some point during a given game, but he hasn't been a major liability.

Backup guard Brendan Mahon (So., 6-4, 318) actually rotates in with Dowrey quite a bit, however. Mahon would start for several other programs and is slotted to eventually assume the No. 1 role. In fact, some believe he’s ready to supplant Dowrey sooner rather than later. That said, Mahon has had some trouble in pass protection this year.

The center, Angelo Mangiro (Sr., 6-3, 321), is Penn State’s leader up front and probably it’s most dependable lineman overall. He’s been more than adequate producing a push and holding up in pass protection, but his forte is identifying blitzers and calling out schemes. Mangiro is the rock, the glue that holds the group together.

Lining up to the right on Mangiro, Brian Gaia (Jr., 6-3, 304) is a converted defensive tackle who has made some strides at guard. A former Gilman (Baltimore, Md.) star, Gaia isn’t going to command attention, but he hasn’t performed poorly either. Gaia’s considered a serviceable guard overall, holding his own pass- and run-blocking. Again, though, like many of PSU's other linemen, he has his issues pitted against elite defensive linemen, who can get under his pads.

Finally, there’s the right tackle Andrew Nelson (Jr., 6-6, 302), who went down during Week 2 and is working his way back. When healthy, Nelson’s one of Penn State’s better tenchmen, a sometimes dominant run blocker who plays with a mean streak. Nelson isn’t too shabby protecting the quarterback, either, although he’ll surrender a pressure from time to time.

Also note the No. 2 center, Wendy Laurent (Jr., 6-2, 294), who occasionally spells Mangiro. Laurent actually may be a better all-around blocker than Mangiro, but his communication skills are lacking, which is why he’s not starting.

Defense

While its offense has been up and down, Penn State’s defense has been its typical steady, formidable self. Under second-year coordinator Bob Shoop, who is considered one of the foremost defensive minds in the country, the Nittany Lions are allowing 17.7 points (20th in the FBS) and 298 yards (16th in the FBS) per game. They surrender just 4.5 yards per play, including 3.6 yards per rush (45th in the FBS) and 6 yards per pass. On top of that, PSU has recorded 12 turnovers (the 12-to-5 turnover margin ranks 11th in the FBS), allowed only 34 third-down conversions (44th in the FBS) and racked up 27 sacks (second in the FBS). Even more telling, opponents have penetrated Penn State’s redzone just 17 times, scoring 13 total touchdowns.

In terms of scheme, the Nittany Lions stick to a base 4-3, rarely varying. Against spread foes, and on third-and-long situations, they do use nickel and dime schemes, but most of the time they’re a gap-control, four-down-linemen unit.

PSU will blitz about 35 percent of the time, but don’t expect them to send corners off the edge or safeties through the gaps. It’s typical A- and B-gap linebacker pressures with an occasional flare thrown in.

Defensive Line

The backbone of the PSU defense, this eight-deep front is the primary reason the Nittany Lions are giving up 145 rushing yards per game; recorded 27 sacks; and forced 20 total fumbles (eight recovered). It’s an experienced, potent group with a combination of pass rushers; space eaters; edge setters; and guys who can do all three equally well.

The stat-stuffer up front is strong-side end Carl Nassib (Sr., 6-7, 272), a former walk-on who has developed into one of the Big Ten’s best edge rushers. An aggressive, violent force with a potent first step/initial punch, Nassib actively busts up backfields. He also has the lateral agility to make plays in space, and the closing speed to catch runners from behind. A true nose-for-the-ball type, Nassib’s one of those defenders who simply makes things happen. Granted, once in awhile he will overpursue, but there’s little to nitpick about his game.

So far Nassib has 35 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, an interception and an eye-popping five fumbles forced. Against OSU, he racked up eight stops, a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss.

The opposite end, Garrett Sickels (So., 6-4, 258), doesn’t boast Nassib-like numbers, but he’s been almost as formidable on film. A first-year starter, Sickels is reliable in run defense with the ability to press the pocket as well. Top-notch tackles can neutralize him at the point of attack, but Sickels usually finds a way to corral backs -- both outside and in the gaps -- and disrupt passing lanes.

Sickels has tallied 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2015. He’s forced a fumble and recovered one too. Last week, Sickels had eight tackles.

Lining up on the interior, Anthony Zettel (Sr., 6-4, 284) is considered a foremost Big Ten defensive tackle. An agile, powerful specimen, the proven veteran commands double teams but still finds a way to force pressure. Zettel can get skinny in the holes, splitting the guard and center with a rapid-fire initial step and a powerful strike. He usually maintains leverage, allowing him to win his point-of-attack battles. Oftentimes, Zettel finds himself right in the quarterback’s face, using his surprising athleticism to bat down passes (see: six pass defenses).

Zettel has 27 tackles, eight tackles for loss and a sack this season, to go along with a fumble recovery and a forced fumble. He racked up four tackles, two tackles for loss and half-a-sack against OSU.

The primary beneficiary of Zettel’s all-around prowess is fellow defensive tackle Austin Johnson (Jr., 6-4, 323), who has taken advantage of one-on-one matchups to the tune of 40 tackles; 7.5 tackles for loss; three sacks and a fumble recovery (returned 71 yards).  That’s not to say Johnson can’t succeed on his own. He’s deft enough to make plays both in tight quarters and down the line, while he’s sturdy enough to hold his ground at the point of attack. Johnson’s quickness of the ball and superior power allow him to penetrate the backfield.

The above are Penn State’s listed starters, but the Nittany Lions rotate through a quartet of backups who see plenty of action. Defensive ends Curtis Cothran (So., 6-5, 261) and Torrence Brown (Fr., 6-3, 250), and tackles Tarow Barney (Sr., 6-2, 306) and Parker Cothren (So., 6-4, 302), not only keep the No. 1s fresh, but they’re difference makers when they enter games. In fact, each would probably start on many Big Ten units, including Maryland’s.

Linebackers

For a younger linebacker core, this unit has mostly performed well, despite their relative inexperience. The three backers do commit mental errors, overrun plays or allow leaky yardage, but, with an assist from the D-line, the group cleans up.

Penn State is known for its middle linebackers, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jason Cabinda (So., 6-1, 245) has stepped right in for the injured Nyeem Wartman-White, who suffered season-ending knee damage in Week 1.  Cabinda leads the team in tackles with 51, while he’s recorded three tackles for loss; two sacks; 10 pass breakups; and a forced fumble. Against OSU, he had five tackles.

An active MIKE who seems to improve each game, Cabinda has excelled in run and pass defense. Cabinda’s a sound wrap-up tackler who sheds well, steps up both in the box and on the edges, and takes tight closing angles. Moreover, he’s athletic enough to drop into coverage and defend the deep zone.

Lining up next to Cabinda, Troy Reeder (Fr., 6-1, 241) is steadily growing into his own during his second season. A solid edge setter, Reeder does well taking down backs in the open and/or funneling them back inside for Cabinda. Reeder has a fast first step, closes quickly and typically wraps up. Now, Reeder has had his growing pains, so you might see him miss a tackle or give up leaky yards, while he also needs to work on his coverage skills. But, mostly, Reeder has performed admirably, exceeding expectations after a redshirt season.

Thus far, he has 35 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, and is coming off a five-stop, one tackle-for-loss outing.

The third linebacker spot might be the most volatile position on Penn State’s entire defense. Von Walker (Jr., 5-11, 220) is listed as a starter, but that’s a bit of a misnomer considering  Manny Bowen (Fr., 6-1, 200) and Jake Cooper (Fr., 6-1, 226) see just as much, if not more, time rotating in.

Walker mainly plays in nickel and dime situations, taking advantage of his cover skills, but he isn’t a particularly reliable run defender. Cooper has flashed some pass-rush abilities, while Bowen may be the most efficient tackler of the trio. Each of them have their respective limitations, however. Thus, none have emerged as consistent, three-down defenders.

For the season, Walker has seven tackles, Bowen has 10 stops, and Cooper has six takedowns and a sack.

Defensive Backs

The Nittany Lions’ secondary hasn’t generated as many turnovers as they’d like, but it’s hard to complain with 152 passing yards allowed per game, making them the 10th most formidable unit in the FBS. For the most part, the unit’s held its own, keeping plays in front of them and forcing opponents to sustain drives for scores.

At corner, Grant Haley (So., 5-9, 189) has emerged as a steadfast defender, despite his height. Haley’s physical in press, can turn and run, and has the wheels to stick to most receivers downfield. Moreover, Haley does a good job reading and reacting in zone, coming up to undercut and/or drop wideouts in their tracks.

Through five games (he missed two this year), Haley has 16 tackles, five breakups and a pick. He had four stops and a breakup against OSU.

The second corner, Trevor Williams (Sr., 6-0, 200), has steadily evolved during his State College tenure. The ex-Calvert Hall (Towson, Md.) standout, Williams is active in press and zone, although he’s not quite as aggressive as Haley. But Williams is a heady corner who reads well, anticipating routes and coming up with game-changing plays.

A cover corner, Williams has the physical tools to ride receivers’ hips and/or transition. He’s fundamentally sound and rarely suffers mental lapses. Williams isn’t the fastest defensive back out there, however, so speedsters can beat him up top once in awhile.

Williams has 20 tackles, two tackles for loss and four pass defenses this season. He’s coming off a three-tackle effort.

At safety, Marcus Allen (So., 6-2, 210) has excelled during his first two years on campus. The former Wise (Upper Marlboro, Md.) four-star, Allen has the range to cover sideline-to-sideline; the length to match up with taller wideouts/tight ends; and the speed to recover. He’s a sound tackler who can make plays in the box too. Moreover, Allen reads well and is the play-caller in PSU’s secondary.

So far, he has 38 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. Allen had eight stops and a tackle for loss against Ohio State.

Jordan Lucas (Sr., 6-0, 193) mans the second safety spot, and has mostly met expectations. A bit more was expected in terms of creating turnovers, but it’s not like he’s been taken to task in coverage. In fact, he possesses above-average range and initial quicks, which, coupled with his football IQ, allow him to pick up receivers and anticipate their routes. Plus Lucas has been a fine run stuffer, making his presence felt as a pseudo-linebacker.

Lucas has 42 stops, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and four pass defenses. He had a team-high nine tackles last week.

The third corner, John Reid (Fr., 5-10, 186), sees plenty of time in nickel situations. Already displaying a knack for finding the ball, Reid’s recorded two picks this year. He’s also a tough, never-back-down type who can jam at the line and stay with receivers throughout their patterns. Reid should be a starter next year, and, if he continues developing, will have an NFL future.

Special Teams

Clearly, the shakiest and most frustrating unit on the team. Penn State’s kicking game has been anything but reliable in 2015, the Nittany Lions readily rotating through two kickers and punters.

Kickers Joey Julius (Fr., 5-10, 259) and Tyler Davis (Jr., 5-11, 186) both have decent legs, but neither has inspired confidence when trotting out for a key boot. Julius missed a pair of extra points, in addition to sending a kickoff out of bounds, drawing Franklin’s ire. Davis, meanwhile, is a former soccer star who has only been kicking for the last two-plus years. Needless to say, he’s not going to calm many nerves when attempting a field goal.

For the season, Julius has converted 9-of-10 attempts, with a long of 40 yards and a miss from 49. Davis, meanwhile, has knocked through his only try from 30 yards out. Neither have been particularly effective sending kickoffs into the endzone.

The punting situation hasn’t been much better with Chris Gulla (So., 6-1, 199) and Dan Pasquariello (So., 6-1, 200) splitting time. Neither has a particularly strong or accurate leg, and each has had issues with shanks; out-kicking the coverage; and pinning opponents deep.

Gulla is averaging 38.3 yards per boot this year, while Pasquariello is at 39.9 yards per.

At least Penn State’s return game has been decent.

Kick returner Nick Scott (Fr., 5-11, 197) possesses good speed and burst, although maybe not the best field vision (he’s missed holes this year). Scott is picking up 25 yards per bringback, with a long of 58 yards.

The punt returner, DeAndre Thompkins, is similar to Scott in that he has notable wheels and acceleration, but must improve his awareness. Thompkins is a home-run threat given his fleet feet, but he has yet to break through. He’s averaging 9.7 yards on 17 returns through seven games.


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