The Other Side: Penn State

Penn State brings a 4-2 squad into Ohio Stadium this week looking for a marquee win under head coach Bill O'Brien. What do the sanctions-impaired Nittany Lions excel at and where are the team's weaknesses? We check in with our Penn State site to get the goods.

This week, we talk to our Penn State site, Fight on State, and its publisher Mark Brennan to get the view from The Other Side.

1. The obvious place to start is with Christian Hackenberg. What stands out about the true freshman quarterback and what does he need to improve on?
Then I'll begin with the obvious and say he has a very strong arm. That won't come as a surprise to anyone who saw his high school film. More eye-opening have been the natural leadership skills he's displayed, even in an otherwise veteran offense. When Penn State chooses to huddle, there is no doubt who is in charge out there. He has also handled the spotlight extremely well. Unlike Joe Paterno, Bill O'Brien allows true freshmen to talk to the media. And Hackenberg has faced the press after wins and losses, and come across as a veteran in that regard, too. His pocket presence has improved as the season has gone along but the internal clock for judging when the pass rush will arrive is still not where it needs to be. He also has to get better at coming off his initial read (when it is covered) and checking down to other targets.

2. Ohio State has struggled with pass defense at times, and it looks like Penn State has some good weapons. Do you expect the Nittany Lions to have success in that realm Saturday?
The issues OSU had with Iowa's tight ends caught my eye. Everyone knows how good PSU wideout Allen Robinson is. But the Lions also have a couple of extremely talented tight ends in Kyle Carter and Jesse James. Carter was slowed with an elbow injury early in the season and it really impacted the passing game. He's come around of late, though, with a total of eight catches for 103 yards in the last two games. James had six catches vs. Michigan. So yes, I expect Penn State to be able to throw the ball. A much bigger concern for the Lions is whether they can run the pigskin.

3. How well would you say Penn State's rush defense has performed so far this year, and can they handle the duo of Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller?
The rush defense has been up and down, but actually played well in the four-OT win against Michigan. Devin Gardner scrambled for 121 yards but his long was 19 and he did not reach the end zone. Fiztgerald Toussaint had 27 carries for 27 yards and no scores, and the Wolverines averaged 2.8 yards per carry overall. But Penn State has not seen a QB/RB combo who can run like Miller and Hyde. It will be interesting to see if defensive coordinator John Butler attempts to use the five-man front that was so effective against Michigan in this game.

4. Where has the Penn State defense been vulnerable while giving up more than 30 points to UCF, Indiana and Michigan?
Pass defense has been the biggest issue. UCF's Blake Bortles is really good (just ask Louisville) and carved up the Lions. IU's Nate Sudfled threw for 321 yards, and two Michigan pass-catchers -- Jeremy Gallon and Devin Funchess -- combined for 207 receiving yards and three scores. The secondary has had some serious breakdowns, even from veterans like Malcolm Willis and Adrian Amos. But the bigger issue in the two losses (UCF and IU) was the lack of a pass rush. Penn State only had one sack in each of those games.

5. Last year, the program famously came together in the wake of the NCAA sanctions and the opening two losses. What stands out about this team from the leadership side of things and what has Bill O'Brien done to keep things steady for the program?
Penn State had some exceptionally strong senior leaders last season, guys with dynamic personalities like Michael Mauti, Michael Zordich and Matt McGloin. This team is still trying to find those types of vocal leaders. That said, a word that has been tossed around here a lot in the past couple of years is "resiliency." If there is a hallmark of O'Brien's teams at this early stage of his head-coaching career, that is it. After the uninspired loss at Indiana on Oct. 5, many wondered if this team was finally going to hit the proverbial wall. The next game was at home vs. then-No. 18 and undefeated Michigan, and with a game at Ohio State looming after that, the prospects of losing three straight seemed real. And they seemed really real when PSU trailed by a touchdown with less than a minute to go in regulation. But the Lions rallied for the win, keeping the chances for a good season alive and making this week's game with the Buckeyes that much more interesting.


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