Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's Homecoming clash against Indiana.
The idea behind The Blitz? Former PSU 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: Well, the Nittany Lions dodged a major bullet with Army, pulling off a six-point victory over the Black Knights. The defense had some breakdowns and the offense has many fans scratching their heads as the Hoosiers come to town for Homecoming.
ND: The question in Happy Valley this week is how Penn State could have been THAT close to losing to Army. Offensive coordinator John Donovan continues to be on the hot seat for his inability to design and call an offensive game plan that allows Penn State to get into scoring position. Meanwhile, the injuries continue to pile up. Indiana came off of a tough home loss to Ohio State, which it had on the ropes for the first three quarters. Indiana will be coming to Beaver Stadium hoping to get its second win in this series.
Who: Indiana vs. Penn State
When: Saturday, noon ET
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
Series: Penn State leads 17-1
TV: ESPN. PLEASE NOTE THE LATE NETWORK CHANGE FROM ESPN2
Line: PSU -6.5 as of Thursday afternoon; over/under at 54.5
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their home date with Indiana.
BIG BOOST: One significant positive on the defensive side of the ball as of late is the emergence of MLB Jason Cabinda, who had a career effort against Army with a game-high 14 tackles, two sacks (including the game-clincher) and a forced fumble. His abilities, along with the play of the defensive front, have given the Lions a huge boost in getting pressure on the pocket while clogging up running lanes.
PASSED OFF: While Penn State finally opted to take shots downfield when Christian Hackenberg hit Chris Godwin for a 49-yard pickup and then hit Mike Gesicki for a 33-yard touchdown pass vs. Army, the Lions’ offensive staff still seem hesitant to widely rely on the air attack. Clearly they’ve simplified the passing scheme, and with six first-down opportunities against Army in the first quarter they passed only once. They Lions have to get multidimensional in Big Ten play.
OPPORTUNITY LOST: Time and again the defense creates takeaways and short-field opportunities, only for the offense to squander them away. Against the Black Knights, PSU’s offense started five drives inside Army territory yet only managed 10 points on those drives. This largely goes to the play calling: for example with a first-and-5 from the Army 12, PSU went up the gut three times for 1-yard, 2-yard and -1-yard gains. Think Army figured out what was going on?
UNWRAPPED: On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State had significant issues with its tackling. PSU players, including veterans, consistently failed to wrap up on ball carriers and reverted to the old wrecking ball technique, which often had them merely bouncing off the opposing player. The staff has to nail this down quickly. It hadn’t appeared to be a significant issue before the Army game.
BANGED UP: Penn State has had a slew of injuries to cope with, including S Marcus Allen, RB Saquon Barkley, RB Akeel Lynch, C Angelo Mangiro, OL Andrew Nelson and DE Evan Schwan. Obviously, with a young roster that isn’t at full capacity as it is, this is a major point of concern for the squad as it heads into physical conference play.
ND: In this section, we will preview the Indiana Hoosiers.
QB OR NOT QB: Quarterback Nate Sudfeld was off to an exceptional start to this season. But he tweaked his ankle in the Wake Forest game and aggravated it again in the Ohio State game. At this time, it’s questionable if he will play this weekend. If he doesn’t, Zander Diamont will take over (just as he did last year when Sudfeld was injuried). Diamont is a more effective runner than Sudfeld, but he is still light years behind Sudfeld in the passing game. Indiana runs a very fast-paced offense, so look for it to try to get Penn State out of position in order to force the big play.
BREAKING ANKLES: Jordan Howard was a member of the UAB football team that notoriously shut their doors last year in a way that went viral on YouTube. Howard transferred to Indiana and was second in the nation in rushing until he got rolled up on in last week’s Ohio State game. It’s uncertain if Howard will play against Penn State. He tried to return in the game last week but was struggling to get any sort of push and could not make a cut. I don’t expect him to play this week and this will be a really big loss for Indiana. Devine Redding will likely get the nod, but he’s not as physical and not as explosive as Howard.
STAT STUFFER: Ricky Jones gets considerable attention as being one of the top producing WRs in the Big Ten. Sudfeld has quite a bit to do with that notoriety, but Jones is a quality receiver. However, he has really struggled the last two weeks, only collecting a combined five catches for 78 yards, which is a dramatic difference from the 16 catches for 378 yards in the first three games. The Hoosiers will want to get him back into the action to keep the Penn State linebackers away from the line of scrimmage.
NICK OF TIME: DE Nick Mangieri is the type of player every coach loves. He’s a good-sized defensive end, but the Academic All-Big Ten pick never stops pursuing the ball, so that’s his real value. He has 24 tackles, five TFLs, five sacks, two forced fumbles, three pass breakups and a blocked kick. He does it all and he wears No. 56 (like another famous pass-rushing playmaker).
SPECIAL OF THE MONTH: Indiana has been very sound in most aspects of special teams — solid punter, reliable kicker, blocked kicks and a dynamic punt returner. Mitchell Paige is averaging 17.43 yards per punt return and has taken a punt back for a 91-yard touchdown.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: The Lions need a semblance of a balanced attack and have to avoid the predictable up-the-gut plunges time and again with a banged up offensive line and a pair of young running backs. Even if Barkley is back in the rotation, the offensive staff has to get the passing game going to keep the Hoosier defense on its toes to avoid them stuffing the box.
ND: Much is being made of the injuries on the offensive line and if Barkley will return this week. But for me, the key to this game is the offensive game plan to really push the ball down the field in the passing game. Indiana is ranked 126th in the country in passing yards allowed, yielding 337 yards per game. Receiver screens and check-downs to the tight ends will not be enough in this game. Indiana loaded up the box against Ohio State, daring it to throw, and I expect the exact same to happen this week. If Christian Hackenberg does not throw for 200 yards in this game, I don’t see how the Lions will win and the scrutiny on the offensive coaches will only get louder and more critical.
MH: With both teams dealing with injuries, it looks like Penn State may simply be healthier and better overall shape that Indiana. While it would be great to see a game plan like the staff put together against Rutgers, the concerns remain that that was simply an anomaly with this offensive staff.
Penn State 21, Indiana 17
ND: I think Penn State pulls this one out, not because the Lions will play really well but because I think the offensive injuries to Indiana will make it very difficult to score on this PSU defense. So it’s not so much that Penn State will win but rather that Indiana will lose.
Penn State 24, Indiana 16
Until next time,
Fight On State!