Blitz the Eagles

Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal tackle Penn State's 2013 home opener against Eastern Michigan. Get the lowdown on what to watch for as the Lions gear up for their second game of the year.

In case anyone wants to review. I'll post this afternoon... Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's first home game of the season against the Eagles of Eastern Michigan.

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.


KICKING OFF

ND: The season opened up with a hard fought win over the Syracuse Orange. Christian Hackenberg made his Penn State debut and showed to the world why so many experts think he is the real deal. But, the game did come at an expense. Several Lions were injured including Matt Lehman, who is lost for the season. Eastern Michigan needed a 4th quarter flurry to come from behind deficit to knock off the Howard Bison.

MH: As expected Hackenberg had some ups and downs in this game, but he maintained his poise throughout, spread the ball around and gave something for the PSU fans to be excited about. The injuries add another challenging dimension for the coaching staff, but this team has a lot of talent despite some glaring depth issues.


DIRTY DETAILS

Who: Eastern Michigan at Penn State

When: Saturday, August 31st at 12:00 pm ET, 9:00 am PT

Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA

Series: Penn State leads 2-0

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: Penn State favored by 23 points


OTHER BIG GAMES

ND: It's that time of the year where Notre Dame faces off against several Big Ten schools. This weekend, they square off against Michigan. Both teams are coming off of very impressive wins last weekend. This is a game that has 2 excellent QBs in Devin Gardner for the Wolverines and Tommy Rees for the Irish. This should be a good game and I really like Michigan in this one. They have some terrific skill players and I think the Notre Dame defense will have a tough time with the versatility of Gardner and the offensive attack.

MH: After opening with a tough loss to Clemson, things do not get much easier for No. 11 Georgia who is home but has to face No. 6 South Carolina. This game is a big determining factor in the SEC East race and things could get ugly quick if the Bulldogs start off 0-2.


UPSET SPECIAL

ND: As you said, Mark, the schedule doesn't ease up this week for Georgia. After a tough, emotional loss to Clemson, the Bulldogs have to regroup to face South Carolina. Steve Spurrier has a talented team that is headlined by defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. But, I think there is more hype than substance with this year's version of the Gamecocks and I think Georgia is still a very good football team. We'll see if they can turn the corner after last week's loss. But, I like Georgia winning this game to get back into the top 10.

MH: I am going to go out on a limb and call a Miami win over Florida. Miami's at home and in these rivalry games emotions can take over. Neither the Gators nor Canes played anyone of substance in week one. Florida is also dealing with some internal strife which could play a factor when it comes down to it.


PSU'S PLAYBOOK

ND: Welcome Christian Hackenberg to Penn State! Hackenberg showed everyone exactly why he won the starting job. Despite playing on the road, in terrible weather conditions and against no slouch of an opponent, Hackenberg showed poise, control and accuracy. The future definitely looks bright. Christian showed the ability to make the timing throws and also showed the touch to drop a deep pass in – like the TD throw to Geno Lewis. He has started a good foundation to build upon. And, the next step is for Hackenberg to work the ball to the TEs and for the coaches to have the comfort in him to be able to throw it over the middle and down the field. Doing so will open up more opportunities for Allen Robinson and others.

The biggest surprise was the lack of running game. Syracuse stuffed the box and, at times, refused to cover Lion receivers to ensure that Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton could not control the game.

However, the inability of the Lions to get any sort of push should be of concern. Additionally, the TEs were regularly getting beat by the Syracuse rushers off of the edge. Coach Mac Whorter and the rest of the offensive staff need to come up with a way to run the ball despite the pressures they face or exploit the gamble that the defense is taking.

Defensively, the Lions overcame an impacting injury to Mike Hull and were able to mostly shutdown Syracuse. The decision to move Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams seems to be a stroke of genius by this coaching staff. Their ability to play the ball and attack to support the run was very impressive. Though Coach O'Brien has stated that Mike Hull will be probable, I don't anticipate seeing him on the field. As a result, the Lions will turn to Stephen Obeng-Agyapong to play that hybrid LB/Safety position as he did against Syracuse. That decision also appears to have been brilliant. Obeng-Agyapong filled every category on the stat sheet.

Syracuse had a game plan that basically negated the pass rush of Deion Barnes but it didn't negate the impact that DaQuan Jones had on the game. Despite quick passes to the perimeter, Jones consistently got a push up the middle and this allowed the other Lion defenders to make plays because Jones had consumed lineman for the entire play. The Lions will face an offense that also focusses on quick strikes and getting the ball out to the playmakers. It will be interesting to see if Butler moves Barnes around in an effort to get him into the backfield more.

MH: Hackenberg and O'Brien will be fun to watch. This is a quarterback who is a prototypical player for O'Brien's offense. Beyond the physical attributes, he's got a bead for the game. What impressed me most was his ability to maintain his poise and keep the offense settled when he made some major mistakes like tossing an interception. This breeds confidence.

Hackenberg did a good job passing the ball around. In fact nine different players caught balls in this game. Obviously Allen Robinson showed he's still the main go-to target, but guys like Lewis and Felder also played important supporting roles. The running game did struggle, but Syracuse wanted to test the passing game by stuffing the box. I am not overly concerned at this point since I expect opposing defenses will spread things out to help open up the lanes after seeing what Hackenberg can do.

I agree Nirav, it's smart to rest Hull and let him get healthy for the bulk of the schedule down the road. The defensive line played well with DaQuan Jones having a career day with nine tackles (8 solo) and three TFL and a sack. He allows Coach Johnson to do a lot with the rotation. I suspect we'll see a pretty straightforward approach to the pass rush in this game, but that the personnel shifts will see some different combinations to test some things out. The secondary has some speed and the versatility of Obeng-Agyapong is much needed to keep the lineups flexible. Again, we're not going to see much innovation with the packages in this game, but I think it gives the coaches an opportunity to try some things out with personnel shifts.


SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE

ND: Eastern Michigan is coming off of a tough 2-10 season last year. The main culprit was defense. The Eagles yielded a nation's worst 267 yards per game on the ground and were the second worst team in the nation in terms of sacks. The good news is that the guys that didn't perform last year are mostly gone as the defense only returns five players from last year's squad, including all three linebackers. Bottom-line is that the defense is going to struggle against Penn State. After giving up 5.8 yards per carry against the Howard Bison and 10 yards per completion, Eastern will have to decide to pick their poison. And, much like Syracuse, I expect that Eastern will stuff the box in an attempt to take away the Lion's running attack and then hope that Christian Hackenberg suffers from Freshmanitis.

Bronson Hill is the star of the offense. In a pistol offense, his small size allows him to pick and choose his way through the defense. Last week, he carried the ball 28 times for 101 yards. Where Syracuse struggled with an offensive identity, Eastern Michigan knows that their identity is tied directly with the ability of Bronson Hill to run. With the Eagles losing at halftime, Coach Ron English (of Michigan defensive infamy) switched to an offensive game plan that really featured Bronson Hill. Don't expect that adjustment to be necessary this week. I expect to see a heavy dose of Bronson Hill early and often. With three new offensive lineman, the Eagles will have some tough sledding against Penn State's front four but they have to stick with that running game.

MH: Former Michigan defensive coordinator Ron English is the head coach of Eastern Michigan. Tabbed by some a few years ago as a defensive genius, it's been surprising to see his defenses perform so poorly in recent years. Eastern Michigan will have to commit to stopping one of PSU's dimensions. I suspect they will try to balance their coverage, but may get seduced into trying the same things Syracuse did by testing the freshman quarterback. This will require a similar game plan to spread out the ball and keep the defense guessing and doubting themselves.

As you said Nirav, Eastern Michigan's offense starts and stops with Hill. He's shifty and can slash for some yardage, but he's facing a defensive front that's a bit bigger and faster than Howard. The Penn State front seven will have to contain Hill and force his east-west to snuff out drives. He can't do it himself, so junior QB Tyler Benz will look for sophomore WR Jay Jones and junior WR Damarius Reed. Neither is huge at 5-10, but can help keep possessions alive on middle routes.


MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY

ND: Without a doubt, the ability for Penn State to run the ball this year is paramount. So, I'll be watching to see how this offensive line performs against an inexperienced and underskilled Eagles defense.

MH: I am interested in seeing EMU's shifty running back Hill against Penn State's front four. Hill can be tough to find in traffic given his size, but when they do it could be a rude awakening.


KEYS TO THE GAME

ND: These games against smaller, less skilled teams are crucial for a freshman quarterback to get a feel for the game. Christian Hackenberg needs to make the most of this game so that he is better prepared to face teams like Central Florida, Kent State and the Big Ten schedule.

MH: I agree. This is a game which can further breed confidence and composure from not just Hackenberg, but all the younger players. The coaches have to put them in a position to excel and succeed to build up that confidence heading into conference play.


PREDICTIONS

ND: The Lions have far too much talent in the trenches to allow Eastern Michigan to have any real chance in this game. Penn State's ability to run and the Eagles' inability to move the ball will help the Lions notch another ‘W'.

Penn State 34, Eastern Michigan 10

MH: EMU will play tough in this one, but they simply don't have the horses to build a supporting case around Hill. I suspect they'll be able to move the ball early, but once PSU adjusts it could be tough sledding.

Penn State 37, Eastern Michigan 13


Until next time,

Fight On State!


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