Mike Wilson: It has been awhile since Michigan State has been to Happy Valley. Much has changed since that trip in 2010, so what is the culture like now under James Franklin and what has he brought to the program?
Mark Brennan: If there are marked differences in Franklin’s styles from the previous two head coaches, they are that he is much more of a people person and much more comfortable attending to the PR aspects of the job. He has embraced social media and used it effectively. He is extremely media savvy, as well, to the point where he reads “everything” written about his team to keep tabs on the public perception of the program.
Though a young man, Bill O’Brien was old school. Joe Paterno was older than old school. Franklin is definitely cut from a different cloth. From a player perspective, Nittany Lions who have played under all three men have said there is a notable difference in Franklin’s over-the-top positive, upbeat approach and the in-your-face style of his predecessors.
Wilson: The first thing to notice -- and one of the most-talked about subjects around MSU this week -- is how good the Penn State front seven has been this season. What has made them so successful in stopping the run and how do you see the battle between them and the MSU OL/RBs playing out?
Brennan: Penn State’s front seven is talented, fast, smart and well coached. There really are no new pieces from 2013, but a couple of key guys have been shuffled to new positions (Mike Hull from OLB to MLB and Anthony Zettel from DE to DT), and they have excelled. This has also been an extremely disciplined unit, and under new coordinator Bob Shoop has focused on gap integrity. That has resulted in very few big runs allowed. The front seven had also gotten an assist from a secondary that’s usually been strong in run support.
I like this matchup from Penn State’s perspective, only because the teams that have had the most success running the ball against the Lions have had mobile QBs. That said, an efficient passer like Connor Cook should be able to take advantage of a defense that is so focused on stuffing the run.
Wilson: On the flip side, Christian Hackenberg looks like he is as good as advertised from what I have seen. What kind of steps forward has he taken as a sophomore now?
Brennan: I take it you’ve not seen a lot of Penn State this season. ;) Hackenberg had some outstanding moments early in the year, but since opposing defenses figured out how bad the rebuilt O-line was, it has been a different story. The QB has been sacked a league-high 39 times, which has taken him completely out of his comfort zone. The line has been better of late, thanks to the return of a couple of veterans, but Hackenberg still seems off.
There has been a lot of talk in these parts about how he is having trouble transitioning to a new offense, but I’ve not bought that. From this angle, it seems he initially struggled because he had no time to throw, was taking a physical beating and was trying to force things. Now, it is not simply a matter of flipping a switch to get back to where he was, especially when taking into account that he is still only 19.
Wilson: To me, one of the areas Michigan State should have success is getting pressure on Hackenberg as the Penn State OL's struggles have been well documented. What are your thoughts on that matchup?
Brennan: OK, so maybe you have been watching Penn State. Pressuring Hackenberg to beat Penn State has been every opponent’s game plan since Big Ten play began, and MSU holds a huge edge in this area. That kind of goes without saying. So to me, a bigger key is whether the Lions can run the ball vs. the Spartans. If PSU can figure out a way to do that -- admittedly a huge “if” -- that might loosen things up for the passing game.
All of that said, the Lion offense has struggled against defenses far worse than what MSU is bringing to Beaver Stadium this weekend.
Wilson: What is another key to this game in your eyes and how do you see the game going Saturday?
Brennan: I’ll give you two keys. The first is winning the turnover battle, which is obviously a tall order against MSU. But to have a chance to win, the Lions will likely have to get points from their defense while not giving the Spartans so much as a short field due to turnovers. Also, Penn State must at least keep things even when it comes to special teams. If it is outplayed at all in that area, things will get ugly.
This is a very good defense, one capable of keeping the Lions in the game and possibly even pulling off the upset if the offense and special teams hold their own. But that’s been the case all season long, and PSU still has five losses.
As for this weekend, I see MSU pulling away late for a 22-10 victory to hold on to the vaunted Land Grant Trophy.