The Blitz was one of the most popular features at the old PSU Playbook, the grass-roots site which was a big part of the entities that united to create FightOnState.com back in 2004. Though the name of the site changed, we kept right on blitzing.
The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.
Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.
ND: Last year was a new chapter in the storied Penn State program. This season, the Lions hope to build on a terrific foundation that was established by guys like Mauti, Zordich, McGloin and Hill. The season kicks off with uncertainty at the QB position and with depth concerns at linebacker position. But, the Lions have a stocked cupboard all over the field and it's time to see how they perform.
MH: Act Two of the O'Brien era should be every bit as interesting as last year. This team has talent around the roster and an impressive coaching staff who pushes, motivates and tends to elevate players. The issue is with depth, which is paper-thin at spots. An opener with a classic rival like Syracuse makes for an interesting first test.
Who: Penn State vs. Syracuse
When: Saturday, August 31st at 3:30 pm ET, 12:30 pm PT
Where: MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ
Series: Penn State leads 42-23-5
Line: Penn State favored by 8 points
OTHER BIG GAMES
ND: The big game of the weekend is Georgia and Clemson. Georgia is an early contender for the SEC title behind the strong arm of Aaron Murray. With a year under his belt, he could be one of the best QBs in the nation. But, the real danger in the Bulldog offense is their loaded backfield with Todd Gurley and Keither Marshall, who will both be running behind a veteran offensive line. This Bulldog offense will score some points. But, all eyes are on Clemson's Sammy Watkins. After an electrifying freshman season, his production dropped off last year and was cut short with a suspension and an injury. Clemson QB Tajh Boyd has been a play maker his whole career with the Tigers and he's ready to help Clemson win an ACC title this year. This matchup should really be fun to watch.
MH: That Georgia at Clemson matchup should be a fun one, but keep an eye on No. 12 LSU as they open with No. 20 TCU. Les Miles has been pointing to a squad that he thinks has big talent, but he's been hedging as well, pointing to their schedule, which he says is tough despite boasting UAB, Kent and Furman. This game will be an interesting as an early indicator of their chances in the SEC West as Alabama opens the season as No. 1 and Texas A&M s No. 7.
ND: Picking an upset at this time of the year is pretty tough since nobody has played a game. So I'm going way out on a limb. I'm picking Rice to beat Texas A&M. The Aggies have more distractions going into this season than any program in recent memory. The status of Johnny Manziel is very much unknown. Aggie starters Deshazor Everett and Floyd Raven will be fixtures on the bench due to criminal activity over the summer. Meanwhile, Rice has 19 starters returning from last year's squad that went 7-6 with a bowl win over Air Force. I like Rice to pull this one out because I think A&M is distracted and I think that Johnny Football won't see the field.
MH: Wow, big pick, Nirav. I like it. I am going to go with No. 22 Northwestern tripping against Cal. The Wildcats have to travel to the West Coast into hostile territory. Cal no doubt needs a fast start given that they have No. 3 Oregon and No. 4 Stanford in their Pac-12 North division. Cal has some offensive questions they have to address, but have some experience in the back field and wings. Pat Fitzgerald's team is looking for a bit more balance than they had in 2012, ranking 19th overall in rushing yards, but 110th in passing yards.
ND: The nation will be waiting to see Coach Bill O'Brien's big reveal on who will be the Lions QB. Well, for the first series at least. Will it be true freshman sensation Christian Hackenberg or Junior College transfer Tyler Ferguson. I am confident that both players will see meaningful snaps. And, in reality, the game plan does not change from one QB to the other. Both have the same skillset so it will not be a situational decision. Regardless of who is under center, the Lions will continue to focus on running the ball and passing the ball. Despite the lack of experience at the QB position, the Lions are loaded with experience at every other position on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive line saw extensive snaps last season as did the WRs, TEs and RBs. There are a couple of new faces that should excite all Penn State fans – Geno Lewis and Akeel Lynch. Both kids turned heads last year while they were redshirting and O'Brien will find ways to get them on the field. I look for Penn State to establish the run first and then use the play action pass to attack Syracuse's secondary with the countless receivers that Coach O'Brien has at his disposal.
Defensively, the Lions will be breaking in a number of new players and a new defensive coordinator. John Butler takes over as defensive coordinator with the departure of Ted Roof. Butler, who was on the staff last year leading the secondary, will be employing a similar system as last year so the players don't face that learning curve. Deion Barnes returns as a playmaking defensive end. He has worked hard during the offseason and is poised to have a significant impact rushing the QB this year. But, his real focus has been on stopping the run. Da'Quan Jones has also had a very strong camp and is ready to take the lead at the defensive tackle position. The linebacking crew is very strong but is very thin. After the starters – Glenn Carson, Nyeem Wartman and Mike Hull, there is a significant dropoff in experience and talent. The opposite is true in the secondary. The Lions were terribly thin at secondary last year. But, the transition of Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas to the defensive side of the ball has provided significant depth. Adrian Amos will be the anchor, moving from the corner position to the safety position. With kids like Obeng-Agyapong, Willis, Keiser and Golden at the safety spot, I would not be surprised to see the Lions move to a lineup with an extra safety on the field while dropping off a LB. The pass rush of the Lions will be strong and the secondary is experienced so the real focus for this defense will be stopping the run.
MH: O'Brien has made it clear he "plays for the present" which is the basic NFL approach. As much as I think you would find he would like to redshirt Hackenberg, he realizes that he needs to build depth and experience with both QBs. What he has going for him is that he has two QBs that are in a similar mold, so the game plan doesn't have to change up as is the case in so many duel-headed QB situations. As you pointed out Nirav, keep a close eye on Lynch, he has been rearing it up in the practice field, so the expectations are high to see what he has. The good news is that the offensive backfield has a lot of experience around it. Up front is a veteran line that is bigger, stronger and smarter. The key will be how they handle Syracuse in the trenches, although the Orange are unlikely to have a massive surge up front. That doesn't mean that the line, particularly the tackles can relax in this game. This is a line that should give the QBs time and comfort early on. The QBs have a corp of targets led by junior Allen Robinson who pulled in over 1000 yards receiving last year. Brandon Felder is another veteran who can be key on possessions. Also, redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis is another guy who has shown some impressive skills. Tight end Kyle Carter is another who can grab passes and pick up valuable yardage. The Lions also have TE Jesse James who has proven to be a go-to guy.
Up front the Lions have a lot of options on the defensive line. Larry Johnson relies on his rotation and with DaQuan Jones anchoring things inside he has a group of guys like Kyle Baublitz and redshirt freshmen Austin Johnson and Derek Dowrey who he can work in to get valuable reps. Deion Barnes and Anthony Zettel have shown they have some strong abilities on the end pass rush and I am curious to see how C.J. Olaniyan manages. The linebackers have, as is typically the case with PSU, a lot of talent. Mike Hull is a veteran on the outside in the prototypical mold of PSU ‘backers. Glenn Carson mans the inside and watch for redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman, who his big (241 lbs.) and fast and true freshman Brandon Bell who is smaller, but has wheels and has shown a "nose for the ball" in practice. This unit has talent, but a lot of inexperience that Coach Vanderlinden will have to work with. I suspect we'll see a rotation of younger guys to get them some time just like the defensive line. The secondary is a mix of vets inside ala senior safety Malcolm Willis and junior safety Adrian Amos and youth outside with sophomore CBs Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas. The unit has a lot of speed and are expected to play more aggressive in Coach Butler's scheme.
SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE
ND: The Orange finished out the 2012 campaign on quite a roll. They won 6 of their last 7 including a big win over Geno Smith's West Virginia Mountaineers. However, the Orange only return 11 starters and none are more visible than the void left by Ryan Nassib at the QB spot. Like the Lions, the Orange have not named a starter. First year coach, Scott Shafer has watched as Terrel Hunt and Drew Allen Duke it out in practice and the race is too close to call. Hunt has the advantage of being with the program last year while Drew Allen, the Oklahoma transfer, has all the tools to be successful. Regardless of who wins the job, the Orange have a very strong offensive backfield. Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley combined for 2000 yards rushing last year and 12 TDs. Gulley also added 33 receptions for 282 yards to his stat sheet. These two backs will be the focus of the offense and will be the key for the Lions.
Defensively, the Orange are also breaking in a new defensive coordinator. Shafer was the Orange DC last year and with his promotion to the head coach position, the Orange look to Chuck Bullough. Bullough has three experienced, strong linebackers. Dyshawn Davis, Marquis Sprull and Cameron Lynch. Since the defensive line is relatively green, these three guys will have to step up big. The Orange do have a pair of safeties that are strong Jeremi Wilkes and Durell Eskridge. With a new QB for the Lions, I expect Syracuse to bring a ton of pressure because they simply don't have the experience and strength to handle the plethora of talent that the Lions will have running pass patterns. So, they will try to force the QB's hand into a bad throw or, at a minimum, an early throw.
MH: Given Syracuse's questions at quarterback and experience in the backfield, I expect them to run early to take the pressure off whomever is under center. The key will be for the PSU defensive line to get a good surge up front to plug up the running lanes. That's not to say Syracuse won't go to the air. They'll have to take a balanced approach as much as possible to keep the line guessing. Watch for some basic intermediate routes the linebackers will have to pick up. The key will be for quick takedowns on completions.
Nirav, as you alluded to, watch for the veteran linebackers for Syracuse to play up, expecting PSU to not put a lot on their young QBs. I think O'Brien will see this as an opportunity with the tight ends in particular and look to go up top to get some pick-ups. Syracuse will want to bring pressure on the pocket, but their defensive line likely won't get it done alone, so watch for them to bring up a linebacker or toss in a safety blitz. Penn State's offense will have to move the ball around to keep the ‘Cuse defense on it's heels, but this is something O'Brien has shown he likes to do.
MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY
ND: The Nittany Nation has been sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to see what the new QB will produce since Christian Hackenberg joined Tyler Ferguson on campus. It will be fun for all fans to watch how these two new QBs guide the Lions' offense against Syracuse.
MH: I am excited to see how the young defensive line for Penn State matches up in this one. Barnes, Zettel and company should be fun to watch.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ND: Syracuse will be focused on establishing the run and trying to control the clock to keep O'Brien's offense off of the field. The key to the game will be Penn State's ability to defend the run. With a thin linebacking crew, the conditioning of Carson, Hull and Wartman will be front and center.
MH: I think a big key will be how PSU's offensive line preserves the pocket and opens up lanes for the ground game. The line has to come out swinging in this one to get things established.
ND: The Lions will struggle on defense but the offense will click right along with so much experience at every position. Whoever plays QB has weapons all over the field and that diversity of attack will be too much for the Orange to contain.
Penn State 31, Syracuse 21
MH: Syracuse will no doubt come out fired up in this one. PSU's offensive line should be able to manage the Orange defensive surge, but with youth under center there could be some "learning" moments in this one.
Penn State 24, Syracuse 17
Until next time,
Fight On State!