Christian Hackenberg is a talented, smart kid who looks like he has a big future. Big arm, good poise, decent enough athletically to move around in the pocket if things get messy. He also deserves credit for keeping his wits after struggling for about the first 20 minutes of the second half against Michigan then rallying the Nittany Lions from a 10-point deficit.
He has some great weapons, too. Penn State has by far the deepest group of skill players Ohio State has seen this season, including two talented tight ends and a couple of very good wide receivers.
Allen Robinson and Brandon Felder both 6-3 and 6-2, respectively, and know how to use their bodies to get open and go after the ball. Robinson is a dangerous runner after the catch as well, as he showed on a very nifty long TD against Indiana. He is the complete package, and Felder is a nice complement.
Tight ends Kyle Carter and Jesse James are also big-time matchup problems for most teams, not the least of which Ohio State after what Iowa did to the Buckeyes. I would rate both of Penn State's TEs as better athletes than the players the Hawkeyes have there. These are guys built to catch the ball, and the Penn State staff does a good job of getting it to them in favorable matchups. Also of note – James handled Michigan's Frank Clark on a couple of outside runs but gave up a sack to him.
Richy Anderson offers a change of pace at receiver as a shifty, 5-11, 175-pound freshman.
They have two running backs with nearly 400 yards rushing apiece, and here they resemble Iowa somewhat again with a downhill guy (Zach Zwinak) and shifty Bill Belton. After Zwinak fumbled on the first play of the third quarter against Michigan, Belton became the man in the backfield and ended up scoring the game-winning touchdown on a nice bounce outside against a goal-line defense. Earlier in the last overtime, he showed some gumption really hitting the hole to convert a third-and-1. Prior to that, he looked a little out of his element running between the tackles, but he is dangerous in open space.
Long-time starter John Urschel is the obvious standout on a Penn State offensive line that seems to have taken a step back this season both in terms of production and the eyeball test. Left tackle Donovan Smith pancaked Clark on the game-winning touchdown run, but he looked vulnerable in pass protection, as did right tackle Gary Gilliam, a converted tight end who got thrown around a few times in that game (Adam Gress is listed as a co-starter here and both have three starts this season). This group was also underwhelming against Indiana, which annually is one of the worst teams in the country against the run.
Defensively, Penn State will make you earn it up front. They are stout on the line and have good all-around players at linebacker.
Tackles Kyle Baublitz and DaQuan Jones had a field day against Michigan (thought that could be partly attribute to the Wolverines' porous interior line), and backup Austin Johnson had his moments as well.
At end, C.J. Olaniyan has become a productive player as a junior while sophomore Anthony Zettel was more impressive on the other side against Michigan than reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes, who didn't do much of anything until helping wrap up Devin Gardner on an inverted veer keeper in overtime. He also stayed home on a bootleg and forced a throwaway on Michigan's last possession.
Speaking of Gardner, it appeared he was fooled by zone blitzes on both of his interceptions in that game, one of which went to Zettel on a pretty athletic catch of a pass that nearly went over his head.
The Nittany Lions shutdown Michigan's power running game but had a lot of trouble with Gardner as a runner whether he was scrambling or keeping it on designed plays. Obviously, this is true of a lot of teams because Gardner is a very good runner, but it must be pointed out considering Ohio State has Braxton Miller, who ran wild on Penn State last season despite still being an inconsistent passer.
Penn State kept its base personnel on the field most if not all of the time against Michigan, and the Nittany Lions loaded the box when the Wolverines were in 12 or 21 personnel.
They got a little exotic occasionally with some pressures, as noted on the interceptions Gardner threw. They might want to dial up a few more things because the secondary looks susceptible with two young corners and safeties who don't really wow you, either.
The Nittany Lions were torched by Indiana's passing game (which is very good) and gave up several big plays to the Wolverines, who have a much different attack and really only have two players who can hurt you at all in the passing game but couldn't be contained in Happy Valley.
With two aggressive head coaches, talented offenses and suspect secondaries, this game has the makings of a shootout.
Just how good is Penn State? It's hard to say for sure. The Nittany Lions made headlines in beating Michigan, but the Wolverines have looked vulnerable most of the season, and Penn State had the added bonus of playing at home in front of a "white out" crowd. Earlier they lost at home to a solid UCF team then were outplayed for the most part by an Indiana team that I do think is on the rise. Though the Hoosiers won by 20, it was a closer game than that as a few things snowballed on the Lions late in Bloomington.
The bottom line is Penn State does things well that give Ohio State problems, but the reverse figures to be true as well, and the Buckeyes should be amped up and ready for them for a prime-time game at Ohio Stadium.
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