Welcome to the FOS Game Week Blitz for Penn State's TaxSlayer Bowl matchup against the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Blitz was one of the most popular features at the old PSU Playbook, the grass-roots site that 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.
MH: The Nittany Lions are back in Florida for bowl season. While Penn State has maneuvered some stormy waters this season — with ups and downs and the departure of offensive coordinator John Donovan — Georgia is braving a hurricane as longtime head coach Mark Richt was booted to Miami. Many UGA fans indicate this game is meaningless to the program, so we’ll see if that attitude carries over to the Bulldog players. Their new head man Kirby Smart, is sticking with Alabama through the NCAA playoffs, and as such has not been involved in bowl prep for Georgia..
ND: After being beaten down at Michigan State to close the regular season, the Lions were looking forward to a little break where they could get healthy and regroup. Part of that regrouping was to address an anemic offense that showed very little sign of improvement. That lack of progress resulted in the termination of Donovan. Meanwhile, Georgia had another average season where it beat every opponent it should have but lost all of its games against quality opponents. The last — and only — time these two schools met, Penn State was able to secure a national championship. No such prize hangs in the balance for this game, but both schools want a win to cap off the season in positive fashion.
Who: Penn State vs. Georgia
When: Saturday, Jan. 2, Noon ET
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Series: Penn State leads 1-0
Line: Georgia -6.5
MH: Let’s take a closer look at where the Nittany Lions stand heading into their bowl clash with Georgia.
UP FRONT: As with most games this season, the success of the PSU defense will be paced by the men up front. Penn State has some questions as to what Georgia’s offense will look like, considering most of the Bulldog staff has departed and even interim head coach Bryan McClendon is leaving for South Carolina after the bowl. Regardless, the Lions will need to focus on RB Sony Michel, who is a hard runner. One major plus for the line will be the return of the nation’s best lineman in Carl Nassib. That should demand a good amount of attention from the Georgia line and take some of the focus off inside guys Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson.
AIR ATTACK: The question swirls as to whether this will be Christian Hackenberg’s final game at Penn State. Regardless, the coaches have to look for a balance on offense, spreading the ball around to Chris Godwin, DeSean Hamilton and company. Georgia’s secondary has had it’s own ups and downs this season, which could play into an advantage for the PSU passing attack. Hackenberg has to be consistent in this game in order to sustain drives. That means being proficient on the short- and medium-range throws.
GROUND IT OUT: Georgia’s defense gives up an average of more than 150 yards per game on the ground. That is good news for Saquon Barkley, who is averaging 100 yards per game. The challenge is for Penn State’s staff to avoid tossing the game on his shoulders. The Lions have to use Barkley efficiently.
NOT SO SPECIAL: We will see if the bowl preparations have paid off for Penn State’s special teams. For much of the season it’s been a widespread liability for the squad. From muffed punt returns and inconsistent punts to short kickoffs and porous kick coverage, special teams have been a lingering headache for the Nittany Lions.
OPPORTUNITY LOST: Another area the Lions have focused on in bowl prep work is with the red-zone offense. PSU’s defense regularly handed opportunities to the offense, which were largely squandered. To close out the season State’s red-zone offense was horrid. We’ll see how Rahne does with the play-calling.
GOING TO THE DAWGS
ND: In this section, we take a closer look at Georgia.
SMART DECISION: After another ho-hum season, Georgia decided to make a change with its coaching staff. Though Richt continually delivered bowls and nine-win seasons, the fan base and the university wanted a coach to help them get relevant in the SEC. So the Bulldogs have hired Smart, who is the defensive coordinator for Alabama. Smart will not coach this bowl game and very few full-time coaches will be on the sideline for Georgia. The offensive and defensive coordinators for Georgia have already moved on, as has the linebacker coach. That leaves McClendon as the interim head coach, and he has already secured a job with South Carolina. A real story line is how the turnover will impact the management of the game, including play-calling.
TOP DOG: Once RB Nick Chubb went down with a knee injury, Georgia turned to Michel and he filled in very well. He tallied just over 1,000 yards with a 5.4 yards-per-carry average. He is a physical but very explosive runner. He also has excellent hands and is probably the most versatile back that the Lions will have faced all year. He has serious jets so look for PSU to stack the box to try to take the run away and to force the pass.
NO WAHOO: QB Greyson Lambert started his college career at Virginia. After playing a bit in his freshman year and playing the whole season as a sophomore, he completed his degree and was a graduate transfer over to Georgia. The coaching changes certainly will impact Lambert, who will be in his third system in three years. He is a decent college QB who is quite accurate and does not make many mistakes. On the other hand, he is not the type of player who will win the game by throwing the ball. He relies on the establishment of the run and then using play action to get the ball to his receiving corps. He has really struggled under pressure, so the return of Nassib will be critical for the Lions.
DRAGON BREATH: Georgia features a 3-4 defense and the most critical guy in that front seven is MLB Jake Ganus. Ganus played last season at UAB, which folded its football program in dramatic fashion. He has transferred to Georgia and stepped right into the SEC without much trouble. He leads the team in tackles with 84 tackles and has a pair of interceptions. Ganus will play a very critical role in this game.
SAFETY DANCE: Georgia leads the nation in fewest passing yards allowed per game, but it is a very misleading statistic. Teams have had quite a bit of success running the ball, so they have not had to throw it. Dominick Sanders is very young but already has a ton of experience. He started every game as a freshman and has been a star in the secondary this season in his sophomore campaign. He has four interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. But Georgia coaches have already stated that they’re concerned about the Bulldog secondary being exposed by Hackenberg’s ability to throw deep.
KEYS TO THE GAME
MH: On offense, the Lions must use an array of weapons and plays to keep the Georgia defense honest. That means striking a balance between the passing and running games. Rahne has some serious weapons at his disposal. Let’s see how he uses them.
ND: Both teams want to run the ball. Barkley will be healthy and has demonstrated his ability to run against the top Big Ten defenses. Michel has been explosive since he took the reigns for the Bulldogs. The key to the game is establishing the run and making it a focal point for the offense. The team that is able to slow or stop the run will win this one because I don’t see either QB taking over the game.
MH: On paper, Georgia should win this game. But with much of the staff leaving or already gone and the incoming coach worried about his current team and a playoff run, the focus for of the Bulldogs may be lacking. If Penn State can get energized for this game and use the weapons on both sides of the ball, it should have the edge.
Penn State 20, Georgia 13
ND: Georgia has more talent and I am certain that the Bulldogs could win this game. But I think the coaching carousel will really impact mind-set of this team. With Richt as the coach, Georgia wins. Without Richt and both coordinators, I think UGA struggles. I like Barkley going over 150 yards and Hackenberg throwing a couple of long balls to pull out the win.
Penn State 24, Georgia 21
Until next time,
Fight On State!