Before each Minnesota football game, GopherIllustrated will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Penn State beat writer Mark Brennan of FightOnState.com (State College, Pennsylvania) to preview the Gophers' Week 5 away game against the Penn State Nittany Lions of the Big Ten East.
1) Penn State seems to have struggled a bit early on as they've won both games at home, but lost both on the road. What are the expectations for the Nittany Lions this season after starting the season 2-2?
MB: Most realistic expectations heading into camp were for six or seven regular-season wins, and I don’t think that has changed much. A lot has been made of the fact that with the NCAA sanctions having been invalidated, PSU is now back to a roster with more than 80 scholarship players. But at the start of the season, a full two-thirds of those players had either freshman or sophomore eligibility. There are only 12 scholarship seniors; one of them is out for the year due to injury (LB Nyeem Wartman-White) and two are former walk-ons. Anyone paying attention realizes the most serious strides toward returning to the status of a top-25 program probably won’t happen until 2017.
2) With no more Christian Hackenberg at the helm for James Franklin and staff, how has Trace McSorley done through four games and what can Gopher fans expect to see from him on Saturday?
MB: The mobile McSorley has been a nice fit in Joe Moorhead’s new no-huddle offense, which operates exclusively out of the shotgun and feature elements of the RPO. Through four games, McSorley has been far more efficient than Hackenberg was the last two seasons, completing 63 percent of his passes. But like most new starters, he’s made a few critical mistakes at key moments, including throwing a interception that cost PSU at least a chance to tie vs. Pitt. McSorley does not have the sort of big arm Hackenberg does, but when he gets dialed in his he very effective in the short passing game and throwing on the run.
3) Penn State has struggled to run the ball in their last two games, rushing the ball 65 times for 186 yards. What's been the issue with such a talented running back in Saquon Barkley?
MB: The same issue PSU has had the last two seasons — just not enough experienced talent on the offensive line. In fairness, against Temple, McSorley threw for 287 yards when the Owls loaded the box to try to stop Barkley. That’s kind of the point of Moorhead’s new offense. And No. 4 Michigan’s defensive front (and defense in general) just overwhelmed the Penn State offense. Also note that Barkley still leads the Big Ten in scoring.
4) On defense, Penn State has given up 213 yards a game on ground through four games. Is that more about the losses at linebacker, and which linebackers are expected back for the game this weekend? Plus, who are some names on this Nittany Lions defense to watch out for Saturday?
MB: There are two issues here. First, three defensive linemen from last season — Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel — are now on NFL rosters. Ideally, PSU’s veteran starting linebacker corps would have helped mitigate those losses. But as you note, that position has now been devastated by injuries. None of the three starters is expected to be back for Minnesota. Penn State is now down to three initial scholarship linebackers (partly due to carryover from the sanctions and partly due to some spotty recruiting at the position of late). Two are true sophomores (Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper) and one is a true freshman (Cameron Brown). All will play a lot this weekend. As for players to watch, focus on the secondary, as PSU will likely rely on more nickel and dime packages to help make up for the loss of LB talent. John Reid is an excellent cover corner who can move all over the field in specialty packages. Marcus Allen is a big-hitting safety. The Lions also have some young D-ends who can get after it.
5) What are the keys for Penn State if they're going to beat the Gophers, and what's your score prediction for the Penn State vs. Minnesota game, and why?
MB: THE key, to me, is for PSU to not let Michigan beat it twice. In other words, put the ugly 49-10 loss in the rearview mirror and chalk it up to not being in the same stratosphere as top-five teams like the veteran Wolverines or re-loading Ohio State. Otherwise, there is no other team on the schedule that’s unbeatable (or a sure win, for that matter). Also, cutting down on mistakes as the Lions get more comfortable in their new offense will help. PSU left a TON of points on the field vs. Pitt (42-39 loss) and Temple (a 34-28 win). With the injury issues on defense, the Lions are going to have to outscore teams from here on out.
Prediction: I’m picking Penn State, 30-25, but probably would have gone the other way had this been a road game for the Lions.null