The Other Side: Scouting Penn State

Kickoff is a day away for a highly anticipated battle between Rutgers and Penn State and High Point Solutions Stadium. To get a look at the goings on in Happy Valley, sat down for five questions with the publisher of Fight On State, Mark Brennan, to talk about the Penn State rise under James Franklin and keys to tomorrow's game.

1. How much does Penn State care about this game? Does this feel like a mutual rivalry?

Mark Brennan -- The PSU program and its fans care about it a lot, especially now that a possible bowl appearance is back in play. However, in terms of this being a mutual rivalry, it is going to take years and Rutgers somehow becoming competitive in the series for that to take hold. When the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten, an attempt was made by all parties involved to create a “rivalry” with Michigan State. Despite great games and a very even series, it never really caught on. (Have you ever even heard of the Land Grant Trophy?) Obviously with Rutgers, there is more of a geographic connection. But the all-time record between the two programs is so lopsided — with the only win for RU in the modern era coming when a Penn State guy was coaching the Scarlet Knights — that this does not have the feel of a true rivalry game.

2. What are the keys to a successful game for Christian Hackenberg?

MB -- The first is not throwing interceptions. He’s had four through two games, and without the picks Penn State likely would have won much more handily in both outings. Though only 19, Hackenberg gets this. He’s admitted to taking too many chances on certain throws because he may have made them in the past. The other is staying on his feet. Penn State’s rebuilt offensive line has done a reasonable job of keeping opponents away from the star QB. And Hackenberg has generally been very good at stepping away from pressure when he’s had to. It will be interesting to see what happens if Rutgers attempts to blitz early and often. The reward could be frazzling that offensive line and getting to Hackenberg. But the obvious risk is allowing State’s young but athletic receiving corps to break a few big ones on blitz busters.

3.What New Jersey guys will have big impacts for Penn State on Saturday?

MB -- On offense, I’ll go with RB Bill Belton. He has to stop dancing around in the backfield and simply hit gaps hard — and I believe you’ll see that this week. He is also a receiving threat out of the backfield. Belton is a proud kid who thinks he’s been kind of slighted by the Big Ten media, and this is a great chance for him to make a statement. On defense, defensive tackle Austin Johnson has been an unsung hero for the Lions. He’s been occupying multiple blockers and chewing up space, allowing teammates to make plays. On special teams, redshirt freshman punter Chris Gulla is coming off a great game in the win over Akron. This is a chance to prove that was no fluke.

4. Why has it been so easy for James Franklin to strengthen the Penn State brand within the region?

MB -- I’m not sure “easy” is the right word there. It is not as if he simply made a clever “State-ment” and, bingo, things began to take off. There have been three keys, in my view. The first is that Penn State already had a very strong brand in the area, owing to the foundation set by Joe Paterno through the years and the job Bill O’Brien did in his two seasons on campus. The second is that Franklin is very smart. He gets that being successful in this area of the country requires a program to take care of business recruiting-wise on its home turf. And finally, Franklin and his staff outwork everybody.

5. What are the keys to Penn State leaving New Jersey with a victory?

MB -- The key(s) in every game are keeping Hackenberg and middle linebacker Mike Hull healthy. They are vital to the offense and defense, respectively, and there is no legit experience behind them. Beyond that, the offense has to continue to work on improving the ground game before the meat of the Big Ten season gets here and — as noted earlier — Hackenberg must make smarter throws. The defense has been strong in most areas but has only forced one turnover in two games. That’s just not enough. On special teams, keeping RU’s potentially dangerous return game in check would seem to be important.

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