We've got a Nittany Lion in the house here people. I know a lot of mudslinging has been going on this week all over the Interwebz, but we preach tolerance and acceptance here at On the Banks. Seriously though, a big thank you to Devon Edwards and Black Shoe Diaries for collaborating on the Q&A this week. If you'd like to check out BSD's version with my answers, click here.
Q: So Penn State fans received some big news earlier this week. With the rest of the B1G struggling at the moment combined with the sanctions being lifted, have expectations changed at all for the team this season?
Devon Edwards: I think the optimism is more due to the former than the latter--Ohio State seemed like an unwinnable game in the preseason, but the Buckeyes look very vulnerable now. Michigan was going to be an uphill battle, but after that 31-0 shellacking they took, few are afraid of heading to Ann Arbor. Heading into the year, there were so many question marks that it seemed like this could be anywhere from a five- to a nine-win team, depending on how things fell into place. The fact that the defense has exceeded expectations, and that the offensive line hasn't been a raging dumpster fire, combined with the state of the Big Ten have shifted that upwards; the added bowl eligibility has me thinking we'll be a solidly middle-of-the-pack Big Ten squad, with around 8 or 9 wins. I tend to understate the effect of the sanctions reductions, only because Penn State never had an issue getting up for games. But there should be a little something extra this weekend, if never again as motivating.
Q: What is the build-up like heading into this game? We've seen a fair share of Nittany Lion fans say this is just another game to them, but is there any excitement at all for the start of a new series with Rutgers?
DE: I really hate to break it to you, but there's not much juice here from Penn State's side. I guess there's a tendency to want to punch upwards: when we joined the Big Ten, we went right at establishing Ohio State as our rivals, but that didn't happen until the late-aughts, when PSU-OSU had already become a de facto Big Ten championship game. From our perspective, there's not too much excitement about the prospect of playing a team with as little tradition or success as Rutgers has had--it's like a little brother thing: Penn State has won 22 of
23  in the all-time series. James Franklin says he thinks of New Jersey as in-state recruiting, and he's put up the results to back it up. When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, there was genuine excitement about getting to start a series with another perennial heavyweight, but here, there's really not much to be gained from circling the Rutgers game on the schedule. The path to Indianapolis isn't going to run through Piscataway anytime soon. I speak for most Penn State fans when I say the "ttfp" stuff is almost laughable. We want to win this game, really, just so we don't have to worry about Rutgers thinking they've ascended by beating a sanction-crippled Penn State team. Become a legit Big Ten contender, and we'll talk.
Q: Christian Hackenberg is leading the B1G in passing yards, but he's also tied with the less-than-stellar J.T. Barrett for the lead in interceptions. Is the former number one quarterback recruit living up to expectations for you?
DE: Hackenberg, incredibly, is still just a 19-year old sophomore, learning his second offense in as many years while working without his favorite target from a season ago. He might be the best pure pocket passer in the country--and he's more mobile than you'll think--but there are still going to be growing pains. He's actually been fairly mediocre the first couple weeks, despite the gaudy numbers: the interceptions have come on late throws and amidst bad decision-making, and Hack still has to learn when to give up on a play and just throw the ball away. That said, he's proven he can work his way out of a slump, and that when he's on, there isn't a throw he can't make.
Q: Let's go B1G East for a bit. A lot has already changed between the preseason and now. How would you rank the seven teams in the eastern division after two games?
DE: Sparty's still #1, and I think Ohio State is working through enough issues that after this weekend they'll have reasserted themselves as an upper-echelon team. After that, it's anyone's guess: this Saturday will teach us a lot, but I'm loath to sleep on Indiana. Gun to my head, I'll go Penn State, Michigan, Rutgers, Indiana, Maryland. But that's purely pulled out of my ass.
Q: Does a Big Ten team make the playoff?
DE: It's unlikely. If Michigan State bounces back and sweeps through the Big Ten, they'll have an outside shot, depending on who else is undefeated at the end of the year. If Oregon gets through unscathes, you'll have a Sparty team that walked into Eugene and played them tough for 50 minutes. The other Big Ten teams either won't make it through the year with just one loss. Nebraska and Wisconsin both have cakewalk schedules, but I don't think either is consistent enough to sweep through conference play.
Q: Rutgers fans are very familiar by now with Hackenberg and his offensive proficiency. What is something else that might surprise RU fans but not PSU fans on gameday?
DE: I know you guys are excited about Paul James, but he's going to have a hell of a time going up against Penn State's front. It's unquestionably the strength of the defense and, after quarterback, is the best group on the team. It's like a Penn State defense of old: stout at the point of attack, and good at swarming to the ball. Simply put, it's a run D that's miles ahead of what Washington State or Howard could have presented. Keep an eye out in particular for defensive tackles Austin Johnson--who's more of a space eater--and Anthony Zettel--who's undersized, but great at knifing his way into the backfield for TFLs. And if they get to the second level, Mike Hull is one of the Big Ten's better linebackers, a guy with sideline-to-sideline speed from the middle.
DE: On paper, I have little doubt that Penn State's the better team, and the end of the bowl ban makes up, a little bit, the enthusiasm gap--not to mention that there are going to be a whole lot of white shirts inside the stadium Saturday night. I'm encouraged by Rutgers' struggles against the run in the Howard win, because our run game has struggled mightily and really needs to get going. But Penn State's been making the kind of mistakes it can't afford to against a good team: if the Lions once again lose the turnover battle by two, that opens the door for Rutgers. I think it's a close game, one where Penn State keeps Rutgers at arms' length for most of the second half but has to fight off a late surge. Maybe 24-20? That seems about right.
So there you have it. I'd like to thank Devon Edwards once again for collaborating on this great Q&A. For more info on the Nittany Lions, head on over to Black Shoe Diaries.