Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's clash against San Diego State.
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.
MH: Saturday’s prime time victory was a nice boost to the Penn State squad and fans, and further progressed the Nittany Lion ground game. PSU still has some major areas to address, particularly with the air assault, but San Diego State is licking its wounds after falling to South Alabama. That doesn’t mean Penn State can coast through this contest, though.
ND: The Lions came out last week and really took it to the Scarlet Knights. The run game was fantastic and the run blocking was some of the best that fans have seen in some time, despite the loss of Andrew Nelson. SDSU is reeling after losing to Cal and Southern Alabama in successive weeks. This was a team that was expecting to contend for the Mountain West title but that is really being questioned now since its only win is against San Diego. I’m not talking about the Chargers, but rather the FCS school in the same town.
Who: San Diego State vs. Penn State
When: Sept. 26t at 3:30 pm ET
Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa.
Series: First Meeting
Line: Penn State favored by 15 points
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their home game with SDSU.
LET IT ROLL: Penn State’s ground game was dynamic and exciting against Rutgers, pounding out 330 yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries. Freshman Saquon Barkley led the charge once again with 195 yards, a mere 13 yards away from the PSU freshman rushing record. A lot of the credit goes to the offensive line, which handled RU’s rush and created lanes. But Barkley also created his own running routes, putting on an impressive performance. Watch for the Lions to fire up the ground game early against the Aztecs.
MISSED THE MARK: While the rushing attack rolled on, the air assault was again lackluster. Christian Hackenberg continues to be off the mark with his delivery, overthrowing or under throwing passes consistently. The offensive line gave him adequate time last week. This is the type of game that could serve as a confidence-booster for the quarterback, particularly if the SDSU front has to pay close attention to the run game.
AIR TIME: One weapon that has emerged for the Blue and White is the kicking game, particularly with Chris Gulla on punts. Against Rutgers he booted five punts for 205 yards, putting all five inside the 20 and negating Janarion Grant, one of the most explosive return men in the nation. This should serve as a key weapon for PSU in the battle for field position.
STORM FRONT: The Lions’ defensive front seven was instrumental in the blowout over Rutgers, and watch for it to play a similar role against SDSU. The line, particularly Austin Johnson and Carl Nassib, tore through the Knights’ offensive front. Add to this the return of LB Brandon Bell, who was a major force in shutting down the RU run attack.
OPPORTUNITY LOST: One aspect of the game to keep an eye on is how the offense handles short-field opportunities created by the defense. The offense has to capitalize on these situations and avoid stalling, as it has in similar situations to date.
ND: In this section, we will review San Diego State.
THE LAST DROP (BACK): The hopes were high for the Aztecs on offense. They have Kentucky graduate transfer and one-time All-SEC freshman QB Maxwell Smith at the helm. He struggled with injuries the last few years, but he has all of the measurables. He’s a big kid and has a strong arm. But the feel for the game seems to have slipped him by since suffering a season ending ankle injury during his sophomore year at UK. After getting stuck in the coaching changes at Kentucky, he decided to come home to San Diego to lead the Aztecs in his final season of eligibility.
PUMPING THE BRAKES: Donnell Pumphrey returns for his junior year after having an outstanding season last year. He rushed for more than 1,800 yards and was one of the top offensive players in the Mountain West. He averaged almost seven yards per carry. But this year he’s well below that mark. He’s a very small back at only 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. His size is not something that Penn State is accustomed to seeing, so the ability to get in the right position and wrap up becomes even more important.
SPREAD IT: Smith has brought a passing attack that really spreads the ball around. Eleven players have caught passes this year — including Smith — but keep an eye on Daniel Brunskill. This kid is a monster-sized TE and can create matchup problems for the Lions. The Aztecs love to establish the border run game, work the outside passing game and then hit Daniel right down the seam. In a one-on-one matchup with a safety, the 6-5, 250-pound TE creates some problems.
STUFF IT: Though San Diego State runs a 3-3-5 defense, which works great out west — but not really in the Big Ten (right, Rich Rodriguez?). The Aztecs do have a pair of linebackers who are making a ton of plays and that are stuffing the stat sheet. Ryan Dunn (57) and Calvin Munson (54) are always around the ball, and seem to be in on every tackle. They are both good-sized linebackers and will do their best to slow down the PSU running game after getting gashed last week.
KICKIN’ IT: What the Aztecs lack in offensive and defensive consistency, they make up for in the kicking game. Kicker Donny Hageman is five of six on the year and has a 54-yarder already. Punter Tanner Blain is averaging 43.4 yards per punt and has dropped 50 percent of his punts within the 20-yard line. Look for the Lions to try to come after his punts so they can pick up some quick, early momentum with a block.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: A major key for PSU remains the offensive line. Aside from this, though, the Lions have to get the passing game going even on a marginal level. Only three targets caught balls last Saturday, so using the skill they have across the receiving unit is instrumental in this game and beyond. That means Hackenberg has to get comfortable in his delivery.
ND: If PSU protects the ball and executes like it did last week, it will walk out of this game with a win. I think the key to this game is to start to work on and develop the intermediate and long-range passing game. The Lions seem to be getting in a nice rhythm with the running game, and the quick slants and screens are working. But the intermediate and long-range passing game has been largely absent. With San Diego State and Army on the docket, the Lions have a nice opportunity to work on that aspect of the offense before the Big Ten schedule really kicks in.
MH: Losing to South Alabama at home doesn't exactly bode well for SDSU. Toss in a bit of jet potential jet lag and the Nittany Lions should have a solid edge in this matchup. With the ground game finding its rhythm it should open some things up for the air attack.
Penn State 30, SDSU 10
ND: This will be a nice experience for the Aztecs to come to Happy Valley and to face a school with this type of tradition. In years past, they might have had the talent and the execution to hang with the Lions for a bit. I just don’t think they have it this year.
Penn State 31, San Diego State 9
Until next time,
Fight On State!