Behind Enemy Lines: Penn State

The Terps take on Penn State Oct. 8 in State College, Pa., and to gain more insight into the Nittany Lions we exchanged questions with publisher Mark Brennan.

The Terps take on Penn State Oct. 8 in State College, Pa., and to gain more insight into the Nittany Lions we exchanged questions with publisher Mark Brennan. His answers to our questions are below:

Terrapin Times: We've been hearing some rumblings up in State College of late. What's the general sentiment surrounding coach James Franklin and the program now after a 3-2 start?

Mark Brennan: “Hearing rumblings” coming out of State College has taken on a whole new meaning the last half-decade or so. For the purposes of this Q&A, I’ll assume we’re talking about folks suggesting Franklin is on some kind of “hot seat.” He’s not, at least when it comes to the people who matter (AD Sandy Barbour and school president Eric Barron).

A quick look at the PSU roster says it all. Yes, the Lions are back to 82 scholarship players now that the NCAA sanctions have been invalidated. But because of those years when recruiting was limited due to the sanctions, a full two-thirds of the scholarship roster is comprised of players with freshman or sophomore eligibility.

PSU has only nine initial scholarship seniors. One (LB Nyeem Wartman-White) has been lost for the season to a knee injury. Another one (LB Brandon Bell) has been out with an injury for the past three games. And yet another (S Malik Golden) missed the Minnesota game with an injury. Against the Gophers, the Lions started only two seniors.

So while Franklin’s first two full recruiting classes with Penn State were strong, the administration knew (and knows) there would be no sudden turnaround — especially in areas that take years for players to develop, like the offensive and defensive lines.

Further the athletic director gave Franklin’s entire staff — assistant coaches, administrative types, support personnel — new guaranteed two-year contracts in the off-season.

The expectations for marked improvement will be there in 2017. But for this year, anyone with a clue realizes the Lions are still feeling the impact of the sanctions.

As an aside, almost without fail, whenever I have this discussion, someone pipes up and says, “well, Penn State deserved whatever sanctions it received, so stop complaining.” And I respond by saying people have every right to state their opinions on what happened at PSU, so have at it.

However, I’m not complaining. Just stating facts. Because from a practical standpoint, nobody can deny the impact the sanctions had — and continue to have — on the program.

TT: While Penn State will always get a few recruits from the DMV (Ellison Jordan, Shane Simmons, Cam Sullivan-Brown, etc.) it doesn't seem like it’s as many marquee names as originally anticipated the last couple years under Franklin's watch. Has PSU placed its emphasis elsewhere, or has the staff's hold on the DMV not been as great recently?

MB: Am I losing my mind, or did Penn State just sign five players out of Maryland last February (including current starting linebacker Cam Brown) and a total of four others the previous two years (including current Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Allen)? ;) All came in on Franklin’s watch.

Sure, Penn State only has one current commit from Maryland for the Class of 2017 (Sullivan-Brown). But it has more than made it up for it by securing four commitments from Virginia prospects (so far), including a trio of four stars.

To me, the bigger thing to follow here is whether D.J. Durkin and his staff are consistently able to keep more of the Maryland talent at home — and away from more traditional powers like Penn State. It looks like they are off to a solid start there. But I don’t think we’ll have the answer for sure until we go through a few recruiting cycles.

TT: How do Penn State fans view Maryland coach D.J. Durkin and the staff he's put together?

MB: I think we’ll have a much better feel for that after this game. For now, Maryland is pretty much an unknown to PSU fans, since I doubt anyone watched the Howard game, and the FIU and UCF games were buried on CBS Sports Network. Then the Purdue game was played at the same time PSU was facing Minnesota.

TT: The Terps have actually played PSU tougher the last couple seasons, including a victory in State College two years ago. Are Nittany Lions fans more apt to view this game as a budding rivalry, especially under Maryland's new regime, or are they still somewhat indifferent about the Terps?

MB: I’m guessing Penn State football fans will start viewing this as a rivalry the same time Maryland basketball fans start viewing that series as a rivalry — which is never. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Nittany Lion fans are happy to have schools like Maryland and Rutgers in the Big Ten, to give the conference more of an Eastern presence. The road trips are shorter. The fan bases overlap, which makes thing fun.

But Temple has been just as competitive with PSU the last few years — and even put a sound thumping on the Lions in Philly last season — and nobody other than the Owls were kidding themselves that that had become a rivalry.

TT: What are some of the areas this year's Penn State squad has been excelling in, and what areas are there significant concerns moving into the heart of the Big Ten schedule?

MB: They’ve made some serious headway on offense (compared to the last couple of seasons). The only team that really shut down new coordinator Joe Moorhead’s attack was Michigan, which used outstanding cover corners to neutralize PSU’s talented receivers while everyone else ganged up on RB Saquon Barkley.

The O-line still is not remotely close to a strength. But Moorhead has been able to cover that up with smoke and mirrors. See last week, when Barkley was held to 38 rushing yards before popping the game-winning 25 yarder, but the Lions had four different receivers with catches of 36 yards or longer and 335 passing yards overall.

Special teams have been significantly improved from the last couple of years, too. This is not surprising, because it is an area where young talent can make an immediate impact. That has included true freshman punter Blake Gillikin.

But that brings us to … drum roll, please … the defense.

First, Penn State had to replace three linemen who left for the NFL. Ideally, a veteran linebacker corps and deep secondary were going to compensate for that. But since the start of the season, PSU has been hit with a crazy string of injuries that have sidelined all three starting linebackers and then four reserves.

At the end of the Minnesota game, sophomore Manny Bowen, who had never played Mike ‘backer at PSU (even in practice), was moved there as an emergency fill-in. Cam Brown, who began the season as a redshirt, is now starting at an outside position. And Koa Farmer, who began the year as a safety, now projects as the other starting OLB.

The bottom line is that Maryland — and everyone else PSU faces — should be able to run the ball against the Lions. Expect a shootout and, if you are into such things, pick the over.

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