Blitz the Knights

Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal tackle Penn State's home clash with Central Florida. Get the lowdown on what to watch for as the Lions gear up for their third game of the year.

Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's second home game of the season against the Central Florida Knights.

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: Penn State advanced to 2-0 for the first time since 2009 with a convincing 45-7 victory over Eastern Michigan. It was an impressive showing by the Nittany Lions with Christian Hackenberg breaking Penn State's single-game freshman passing record with 311 yards. The running game struggled at first but had a great second half. Now PSU faces Central Florida, a team they have not played since 2004. UCF is 2-0 having dismantled Akron and Florida International.

MH: Although he had some stumbles, namely an early fumble and touchdown, Hackenberg continues to impress me with his poise and field management. Hackenberg spread the ball around to 10 different receivers with Allen Robinson once again leading the charge in the air attack. Penn State had a solid game against EMU, but O'Brien knows the improvement has to be continuous as the schedule gets steeper.


DIRTY DETAILS

Who: Central Florida at Penn State

When: Saturday, September 14 at 6:00 pm ET, 3:00 pm PT

Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA

Series: Penn State leads 2-0

TV: Big Ten Network

Line: Penn State favored by 5.5 points


OTHER BIG GAMES

ND: There are several big games of BCS conference teams playing this weekend. But, I'll be on full Lane Kiffin watch this weekend. After losing to the Washington State Cougars, USC fired their defensive coordinator after only 2 games on the job. The calls for Lane's job have never been louder in Los Angeles. Enter Boston College. BC is not a great football team but they have only turned the ball over twice this season and they are balanced on offense. I think this game will be much closer than Lane would like and the only reason that the Trojans will win is because the game is in the Coliseum.

MH: That is no doubt the main event, Nirav. Another game that intrigues me is No. 23 Nebraska hosting No. 16 UCLA. The Husker defense looked horrid in week one against Wyoming, but seemed to wake up against Southern Miss, allowing only 13 points. UCLA was off last week after demolishing Nevada in week one. But the Bruins are sky-high with in-town foe USC losing to Washington State. This should be an interesting matchup.


UPSET SPECIAL

ND: Say what you will about Johnny Manziel, but the Aggies of Texas A&M have been putting up some big points. I realize that Alabama has a good defense and that they want to exact revenge from last year's embarrassing loss. However, the Crimson Tide were not very impressive offensively against Virginia Tech. With only 206 total yards of offensive, Coach Nick Saban surely focused on offense during their open date last week. But, I still like the Aggies at home. Gig ‘em!

MH: I was excited to see my upset special from last week come true as Al Golden's Miami Hurricanes knocked off No. 12 Florida. The game had so many interceptions it had reflections of Penn State's Fiesta Bowl win over the Canes in 1987. This week I am going out on another limb as I think Illinois has a shot at knocking off No. 19 Washington. The Huskies are soaring after beating Boise State, but this one is home for the Illini who put up 45 points on Cincinnati this past week. It should an interesting test for both squads.


PSU'S PLAYBOOK

ND: Christian Hackenberg continues to demonstrate tremendous poise for a true freshman that just stepped on campus. He has distributed the ball very well but Allen Robinson and Brandon Moseby Felder have been his main targets. Although, I think this is the week that Hackenberg will start to utilize both Kyle Carter and Jesse James far more. Defenses have been loading the box and throwing a ton of pressure at Hackenberg. The remedy to this approach is for the Lions to start utilizing the tight ends more, which will cause the linebackers and the safeties to drop into coverage or suffer the consequence of the Lions gashing them for big yards over the middle.

The running game really started to pick up the pace in the 2nd half of last week's game. With Hackenberg making plays through the air, that will allow the running game to get more lanes for bigger plays. The running of Bill Belton has really been impressive. He's patient and is able to hit the cut-back lane with tremendous speed. Though Zack Zwinak has been productive, the ability of Belton to get to the edge and stick his foot in the ground to take a run in a different direction has been a huge advantage that has been facing 8 and even 9 man fronts. I expect that the Lions will continue to use a rotation of Zwinak, Belton and, to a lesser degree, Akeel Lynch.

Defensively, the Lions have nothing short of a monster in DaQuan Jones. Once again he grabbed nine tackles, two TFL and a sack. He's disrupting the pocket on nearly every down and is creating opportunities for the defensive front. At linebacker, with injuries impacting the lineup, Glenn Carson in the middle has really stepped up. Against EMU he grabbed 10 tackles and half a sack. Both middle men will have to be on their game against Central Florida's pass blocking efforts. Central Florida likes to go up top to junior receiver Rannell Hall and sophomore Breshad Perriman. Both are over 6-foot and will fight for jump balls, so the secondary has to be alert in this one.

MH:Penn Statefans should be excited at where this team is headed. Yes, they are paper-thin in terms of depth at certain spots, but O'Brien has this team playing aggressive with the old "hair on fire" approach. As I mentioned above, I am really impressed with Hackenberg's ability to manage the huddle and control the pocket, He's moving well and seemingly running through his progression pretty consistently. He has had a great supporting cast with the offensive line and receivers and given the fact that the run game stepped up last week it took pressure off him with a multidimensional offense.

What I am particularly excited about is the variety they have in the pass game and run game. Passing they have a lot of different receivers that given them options and looks. As teams start to key on Robinson, Brandon Felder, Eugene Lewis and Jesse James, among others, have shown they can step up and make plays. Penn State will have to keep spreading the ball around to send a message that doubling up on Robinson is not a smart option to defend PSU.

Nirav, you mentioned Carson. He really impressed me with his aggression and all-out attacks on some of EMU's runs. He seemed to play fast and hard which was and will be key for Penn State to plug up holes and shift things to the outside. Another linebacker who stood out to me was Nyeem Wartman he grabbed six tackles (four solo), but I thought he played well overall and adds a nice dimension to the linebackers. In terms of Jones, I know this is saying a lot, but he could be one of the most improved players in the country. He's really become a load for offensive lines to handle and UCF will have no choice but to put a lot in front of him to try to slow him up.


SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE

ND: Central Florida's quarterback is Blake Bortles. He is a big, strong and is able to make all of the throws on the field. The good news is that he is not a mobile QB. He gets rid of the football very fast to his big receivers and I expect that Bortles will utilize the same passing attack that Syracuse used – the dip and dunk attack. With Bortles accuracy, he will be able to keep the sticks moving.

The Knights have used a relatively balanced attack. However, with the success that Penn State has shown in stopping the run, the Knights will most likely rely on the passing game more and will throw quite a bit on 1st down. Many of the Knights' running yards have come in the last 2 weeks after Bortles' arm and the defense has basically won the game. I do expect that the Knights will run the ball, but they will use it only to keep the Lions' defense honest. However, this offense is focused on the production that Bortles provides.

Defensively, the Knight had to replace 5 starters from last year's squad. And, despite playing some weaker competition, they have only yielded a total of 7 points this season. They are led by a very good middle linebacker in Terrance Plummer. He has 17 tackles and 3 TFLs over the 2-game season. E.J. Dunston is a beast in the middle. He's a senior defensive tackle that is stuffing the stat sheet this year with 7 tackles, 1 sack and 2 forced fumbles. The defensive approach will be to load up the box and to rely on the tall, physical secondary to shutdown the PSU passing attack. In the end, I think the Knights will struggle the athleticism of the Lions' tight ends and running backs catching the ball. But, they are good enough to keep the game close. Remember, they have only given up 7 points this year.

MH: MH: Central Florida is 2-0 and has put up 38 points in both of their games, surrendering a total of 7 points. Junior QB Blake Bortles leads the offensive charge with a 30 for 43 passing performance in his first two games for 528 yards. Last season he put up 3059 passing yards, so expect the Knights staff to go to the air early and often with him. We already reviewed two of his main receivers in Hall and Perriman, but keep an eye on JJ Worton. The junior is another sizable 6-2 target who leads the squad in receiving touchdowns so far this year with two.

The rushing attack is led by All-Name candidate Storm Johnson who has 38 carries for 188 yards and an impressive five touchdowns. Johnson is a junior ho is 6-foot, 215 pounds and has some speed of the edge. PSU's defense will have to account for him when they lineup since they will move him around. He's supplemented by 5-11, 205 freshman William Stanback who has picked up 93 yards on 16 carries.

Defensively, the Knight front seven is expected to bring the pressure up front to challenge Hackenberg. I suspect we may see them stuff the box early, so getting the intermediate passes together will be key. I think we'll see a heavier dose of Zwinak here to bust open the coverage and try to keep the defensive line guessing.


MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY

ND: Mark, as I said, I think we will see the unveiling of the Penn State tight ends in this game. By doing so, that will prohibit the Knights from attacking the line of scrimmage out of fear of the play action pass. I think it will be exciting to see how this matchup unfolds.

MH: I am curious to see how PSU's formidable secondary does against a sizable receiving corp with a QB who likes to throw. With three main receivers over 6-foot, it should be an interesting contest to see how the corners matchup to address the air attack of the Knights.


KEYS TO THE GAME

ND: Key here is for the Lions to come out fast, hard and focused. They have play this one like a primetime game (which it is) and dial up the aggression.

MH: The Lions have to play great in the trenches on offense. Hackenberg needs lots of time and protection and the running game has to be viable against a defense that will definitely be loading up the box.


PREDICTIONS

ND: Penn State is a tough place during a night game. I like the Lions to struggle early but for Christian Hackenberg to make some plays through the air in the fourth quarter to help secure a win.

Penn State 27, Central Florida 24

MH: I suspect Central Florida will come out swinging on this one. They've had an impressive start to their season against some not so impressive opponents. I expect it to be tight early on, but Penn State's defensive adjustments and the offensive balance help the Lions pull away in the third.

Penn State 31, Central Florida 13


Until next time,

Fight On State!

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