Download the full FOS Blitz gameday guide at the link below, or simply read Nirav and Mark's game preview below.
ND: The Lions had a nice win on Saturday and we saw first-hand why the coaches named Robert Bolden the quarterback. He played a good game and executed the offense effectively. But, the stakes are being upped, and now the Lions have to travel to visit the defending National Champs in a huge out of conference matchup. This is the type of game that exemplifies why the players chose to don the blue and white. It doesn't get any better than trying to slay Goliath.
MH: It was a PSU trademark slow start, but Penn State finally turned it on and Bolden had a banner day. The Lions did what they had to do, but now the warm-up is over and the season really kicks off with a big road game in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is without Heisman winner Mark Ingram and defensive standout Marcell Dareus, but they still have a lot of weapons and speed, so Penn State better be on their game from the kickoff.
Who: No. 14 Penn State at No. 1 Alabama
When: September 11th at 7 pm ET and 4 pm PT
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium (101,821) in Tuscaloosa, AL
Series: Alabama leads 8-5
Line: Alabama by 12
Other Big Games This Weekend:
ND: The slate is stacked with outstanding matchups. While we will be tuning into see a rematch of the 1979 national championship game, I think the rematch from the 2003 national championship game will be fantastic. Miami and Ohio State face off, and I'm certain we'll see plenty of replays of the controversial pass interference call this week. Miami's Jacory Harris is a dark horse for the Heisman, and many think that Miami could make a run at the BCS title game. But, to get that far, they have to get past Terrelle Pryor and the Buckeyes. I see this game really coming down to how well Ohio State's defense can keep the passing attack of Harris under wide receiveraps. Wisconsin knocked off the Canes by controlling the clock, playing physical football and frustrating Harris. I think the Bucks will repeat that pattern and come out with a key out of conference win.
MH: It is a big weekend. Aside from the Miami/Ohio State clash, No. 17 Florida State heads to No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 22 Georgia is at No. 24 South Carolina. It's a great slate of clashes. The Jimbo Fisher era has begun at FSU, and this is the first true test for the Noles. Kind of ironic that Bobby Bowden will be in Alabama watching Joe Paterno and his Nittany Lions. It's also interesting to see the SEC with an early premier conference game. Georgia and USC have been underachievers in recent years, so this game is an important one to both programs.
ND: Well, one of the two pretenders will be in for a rude awakening this Saturday. After Michigan's win against UConn and Notre Dame's defeat of powerless Purdue, the two will square off in South Bend and we'll see which team emerges. Notre Dame did not show the type of offense or defense to compete against Michigan. I don't think Michigan is as improved as most are suggesting but against inferior defenses and offenses that refuse to test the Wolverines deep, the maize and blue will win. I like Michigan upsetting Brian Kelly's Irish in the game. Get ready for the Rich Rodriguez bandwagon to start filling up!
MH: I was oh so close with my Oregon State upset pick last week. Back to that SEC clash, I think we may see the Bulldogs reeling from a balanced Gamecock attack which should feature the legs of former PSU recruit Marcus Lattimore. As for your pick Nirav, I am not sold that Michigan can hang in there without a solid defense, but we shall see how Kelly's heroes handle the Wolverine attack.
ND: Robert Bolden started out his college career looking like a seasoned pro last week. He demonstrated all of the qualities that helped him win the starting job – poise, accuracy and a very quick release. He relied heavily on captain Brett Brackett, but he'll have to distribute the ball much more this week. Specifically, the use of the wide receivers down the field will be a key to keep the Tide from crowding the box. All-SEC safety Mark Barron is fantastic and likes to crowd the line to help in run support. Meanwhile, mike linebacker Dont'a Hightower has returned from injury and is ready to fill the shoes of All-American Rolando McClain. He is plenty capable. The passing game of the Lions must keep these two guys away from the line of scrimmage.
The problem, of course, is the offensive line. They struggled against Youngstown State to open massive holes and gave up a number of zero-gain running plays. What will happen when they face Alabama? Somehow, this squad has to come together to demonstrate their ability to play against a superior defense. If they are not able to control (forget about dominate) the line of scrimmage, they will be helping Bolden and Evan Royster get up off of the turf in Bryant-Denny Stadium on most downs.
I am expecting the Lions to spread out the Tide and use flanker screens, running back screens, wheel routes and anything else that allows Bolden to get the ball out of his hands before the pressure caves in on him. Bolden simply will not have time to throw the ball unless the Lions are able to establish the run, and I don't see that happening until the Lions are able to force the linebackers to cover the flat.
In the end, the Lions are going to struggle. Bolden was slow to call plays and that was at home. With a night game on the road, he's going to find it difficult to get the call out to his teammates. We'll probably see Bolden run a ton more in this game with hopes to keep his vision clear and to give him an opportunity to tuck it and run or to hit a wide receiver on a crossing route. But, the speed of the Tide and their ability to push around a weak offensive line will keep the Lions' offense caged up.
MH: You're spot on that Bolden will have to run through his progression and will not have many opportunities where his receivers get behind the defense ala Brackett against YSU. Bolden showed a strong prowess to make reads and use his check-downs, and he was very steady even during pressure moments. The issue is that Youngstown was a Schwinn and Alabama is a Ferrari; faster and sleeker with sharper performance. The tallest order is for the line to give Bolden time to deliver the ball. Dareus being suspended helps, but Alabama still has impressive speed off the edges which Nick Saban will send early and often.
I expect that the Tide will stuff the box to put the game on the shoulders of the true freshman. This will create pressure on Bolden, but he has a myriad of sizable receivers that he has to use beyond Brackett. This should be a big opportunity for Graham Zug, Derek Moye and Justin Brown. The question is whether Bolden has time and can make the reads to deliver the ball. Remember, Alabama is sending out an inexperienced secondary. They are fast, but that should help the veteran PSU receivers find some holes. I agree that they will have Bolden running more in this game, but I also think the staff loves his confidence and abilities and will work to get him in situations to assemble drives.
In terms of the running game, Bama will likely try to bottle up Royster, so don't be surprised to see some doses of Stephfon Green and possibly Silas Redd to mix things up. The big question for me is whether Joe Paterno keeps the offense bottled up or allows them showcase their abilities. Most of the college football world has this one chalked up as a loss, so Joe might as well unleash the hounds and show what they are capable of.
ND: Mark, I'm completely baffled. Everyone wants to talk about Ingram, Trent Richardson, Julio Jones or the huge, young offensive line for the Tide but nobody wants to talk about Greg McElroy, the senior signal caller. This kid is smart, accurate and he can make all of the throws. All this kid does is lead his team to victories but he seems to take a back seat to everyone else. But, he could be thrust into the spotlight if the Tide keep winning with Ingram nursing a knee injury. The Lions will have their hands full with McElroy and the rest of this offense.
Richardson leads a rushing attack that is built on the physical play of the offensive line. This is typical Saban football, folks. He wants a running back that has speed but can pound the ball. The play of the Penn State linebackers must improve this week to shut down this attack. Chris Colasanti had a terrific game in his first career start. He was always around the football especially at the line of scrimmage. But, Bani Gbadyu and Nate Stupar were nowhere to be found until the ball was already down the field. Stupar was taking some really bad angles as well. Mike Mauti played quite a bit last week and showed some speed, but he was still slow to react. I thought Gerald Hodges played very well. He was flying around and was right in the middle of things at the line of scrimmage. This squad has to come to play because stopping Richardson is going to be a key in this game.
I thought the defensive line underperformed last week. They stopped the ball near the line of scrimmage and were able to get some pressure on the Youngstown State quarterback, Hess, but he was still able to complete 84% of his passes and was only sacked once and that was by Stupar. Devon Still needs to put together a huge game. He was double-teamed most of the time against YSU, but he must find a way to disrupt the middle of the line.
Jones gets a ton of press and deservedly so. He is one of the best wide receivers I have seen in a non-spread offense in quite some time. He has the size, speed and body control to be a real super star in the NFL. His diving catch last week was nothing short of spectacular. But, keep an eye on the Bama tight ends and H-backs. The Lions are going to be so consumed with stopping Richardson that I can see McElroy hitting Preston Dial or Michael Williams running right down the seam. Remember, Saban knows Bradley's defenses and he knows that a tight end down the seam is a vulnerability in the zone defense especially with three new linebackers on the field.
This offense is made to pound, pound and pound some more and then hit a homerun over top once the safeties and linebackers get lazy. I am expecting the Lions to control Richardson and keep him from completely shredding them. But, the throwing of McElroy will be the difference in this game and will allow the Tide to get into the end zone in the first half with regularity.
MH: Nirav, I am with you, McElroy is a seasoned veteran who makes great reads and adjustments. He's a solid leader and very steady with his management of the huddle and pocket. He's not glitzy or glamorous, so the media tends to overlook him, but he's a formidable weapon that will have Penn State's secondary on their toes.
The front four for Penn State have to get pressure on the pocket, which they struggled with against YSU. Ollie Ogbu and Still need to work to collapse the pocket inside and help Jack Crawford, Eric Latimore and company get cleaner routes to speed up McElroy's decisions. They have to be able to break into the line to create disruptions. If Bama's offense is given time, buckle up.
As you alluded to Nirav, this game will be a big test for the new PSU linebackers. They have the speed and athleticism, but do they have the read-react speed to handle the inside routes and zone pickups against these Tide targets? Colasanti showed me something last week. He's quick, strong and fearless. He needs to bring that to this contest in order to provide support against Richardson.
Bradley will have the secondary playing containment, which will allow McElroy to find success, in the hopes that he makes some mistakes. The unfortunate thing is that he doesn't tend to make many. The secondary will need to play tight and aggressive to keep Jones and company at bay. That is a tall order, but I am expecting big things from this secondary and think they are looking at this game as the opportunity to make a statement. PSU has shown a prowess to contain big-time receivers in recent years, but Bama has a lot of different targets they can go to.
ND: Collin Wagner was a real surprise and a treat to watch. He nailed his field goal attempts, and that was huge for his confidence. Likewise, Powell's kickoff return was great. The Lions seem to have things headed in the right direction on special teams. Meanwhile, the Tide seem to have replaced their All-American kicker, Leigh Tiffin. Cade Foster hit both of his field goal attempts, and Cody Mandell averaged just over 40 yards on his three punts. Mark, keep an eye on Julio Jones returning punts for the Tide. That's a huge advantage, and the Lions had better stay in their lanes and hope that Anthony Fera can get some solid hang-time on his punts. But, fans should be very encouraged by the team's performance in the first week. How encouraged will depend on how things turn out this weekend.
MH: Wagner has worked on building his core strength this off-season, and it showed on Saturday, to the point he was named a "Star of the Week" by the Lou Groza Award. I was pleased with the improvements PSU showed on special teams; however they are facing faster, stronger coverage this week. Fera needs to be a big weapon this week. Bama has solid kicking, but it's young, which could be an opportunity for Penn State.
Matchup to Kick Back and Enjoy:
ND: The most critical matchup in this game is Penn State's offensive line against the front seven of Alabama. The blue and white must protect Bolden, and they have to open up creases for Royster or Fera will get quite a bit of action in this game. It'll be fun to see what the Lions do to bolster the offensive line and how that squad faces off against the Alabama group that will be tasked with pulling the plug on the Spread HD.
MH: I am looking to the other side. I think Bolden and the wide outs can get out of some jams, however the PSU front seven have to get pressure on the Bama offensive line in order to disrupt the cadence of the Tide's timing. Alabama is fast, strong and aggressive, so the Penn State defense has to come out swinging and give the offense some opportunities.
Keys to the Game:
ND: I think both teams are going to try to take away the run and force the quarterbacks to make throws and to press the ball down the field. Whichever quarterback can get the time to throw and connect on deeper passes will allow their star runner to gash the opposing defense on play action.
MH: I think this game comes down to Paterno. He knows he has talent and a scheme that can work. He has to let it all hang out and just let these players compete. Penn State has little to lose and much to gain in this game. Let ‘em go Joe!
ND: It's really simple – too fast, too physical and just too good. I think this game is a good way for the Lions to prepare for Iowa, who will play a similar brand of football. But, this game will be tough for Bolden and the Lions' linebackers.
Alabama 38, Penn State 13
MH: I know I am in the minority on this one, and perhaps hoping against hope, but I think Bolden has a big game with his wide outs against an inexperienced UA secondary. Everyone is saying this is a classic matchup. The pressure will be on, but few are giving PSU a shot, and that is where may just see some classic Paterno, who is 2-0 in Tuscaloosa.
Penn State 20, Alabama 17
Until next time,
Fight On State!