Believe it or not, we actually have a football game tomorrow. And against Penn State no less. I was fortunate to speak with Devon Edwards of Black Shoe Diaries this week, who graciously shared some insight on the Nittany Lions. If you don't get your fill from this interview, head over to their site for all the coverage you will need regarding our opponent this week. Spoiler alert, Penn State fans are not as excited about this game as we are. It really doesn't matter, as this game will go a long way in determining what direction Rutgers season ends up going. Here we go.
How does the fan base feel about James Franklin? How does it compare to your previous coach Bill O'Brien and how he was thought of? Do the fans buy into the hype Franklin is selling or is their concern long term that he is not the right fit? What were expectations heading into this season and have they changed after the loss to Temple?
The hire of O'Brien was met with skepticism, but he very quickly endeared himself to the fanbase, to the point where almost all of us would take him back in an instant. Franklin's a bit of a tougher case, because even the fans who've soured on him somewhat don't really see Franklin as the root of Penn State's problems. O'Brien was the kind of coach who had input on all facets of the game--he was the quarterback coach, the offensive coordinator, and so on. Franklin's approach has seemed to be more hands-off: he'll be the public face of the program, but trust his assistants to run the football side of things. Now, sometimes that works exceptionally well: Bob Shoop and the rest of the defensive staff have earned the utmost confidence of the fanbase--but when it comes to the other side of the ball, well, John Donovan, Herb Hand, and Ricky Rahne aren't particularly popular figures. There was hope heading into the season that Penn State could build off its performance in the Pinstripe Bowl--easily the most complete offensive performance of the 2014 season--and put the offensive line troubles behind it. But against Temple, Penn State's OL did an even worse job protecting Hackenberg and Donovan's playbook was even less creative and successful. The optimistic projection went from 9 or even 10 wins down to 7 or 8 (the schedule remains comically soft); even a pessimist like me thinks bowl eligibility is something of a foregone conclusion, barring even more injuries.
Since this probably won't be a complete waste of a season, the concern then turns to Franklin with regard to a) whether he'll value his loyalty to those coaches so much so that he won't fire them even after it's become abundantly clear that they're not getting the job done and b) how he can continue to paint a rosy picture when all is not well in State College. The latter is just frustration boiling over; the former a very real problem. If Franklin lets Donovan and the offensive staff go and brings in someone competent, then he's still every bit the coach Penn State fans wanted--a dynamic recruiter, a cheerleader for the program, and a strong leader in charge--if decidedly not a great football mind.
Does the fan base care about how many New Jersey recruits Penn State signs and vice versa, how many Pennsylvania recruits that Rutgers signs? Does Franklin try and make signing New Jersey recruits a big deal to fans, or does he focus on that with recruits primarily?
The only reason that recruiting in particular regions matters is because James Franklin--like most coaches, of course--has focused his efforts on the 250-mile radius around State College. New Jersey happens to be one of the more fertile recruiting grounds in the region. But honestly, aside from the easy jabs at Rutgers that it provides, there's nothing particular about recruiting New Jersey that gets Penn State fans excited. Back when Larry Johnson was the ace recruiter here, Penn State went down to the DMV area regularly. Now, it seems New Jersey is the focus--and the initial success breeds more connections and more success later on. That's probably the idea that matters to these high school kids, I'd think--that they're part of a "movement." (For how lame I think Maryland's slogan is, I can't deny that there are plenty of 17-year-olds buying into it.
The only issue with pulling in top recruits from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, I would think, is that those are kids that Penn State is competing against other Big Ten progams for. If we don't pull in, say, New Jersey's Steven Gonzalez, or Pennsylvania's Sterling Jenkins, from last year's class, they're playing for Urban Meyer. But if Penn State's pulling in a top-10 class, they could all come from Colorado and North Dakota and we'd be a pretty happy bunch.
What are your thoughts on QB Christian Hackenberg and his season so far? Despite a down season a year ago, expectations for him are still very high, with some projections listing him as a 1st round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. What are your thoughts on his future prospects and how much does he miss previous coach Bill O'Brien?
Oh, man. Hackenberg misses O'Brien like The West Wing missed Aaron Sorkin. Like, sure, we're technically watching the same thing, but without that guy in charge, what's the point? Hackenberg was a perfect fit for O'Brien's pro-style, downfield-passing game that mirrored what he'd done with Tom Brady in New England. John Donovan, on the other hand, runs a decidedly amateurish shotgun spread that would work better if he had a mobile QB with a pop-gun arm than with the future NFL stud he's got. Not only is Hack throwing tons of screens and short passes in Donovan's system, but he's not really being asked to make multiple reads--and there are some reports that he's even given a limited ability to make checks at the line of scrimmage. It doesn't help that in the past year plus, he's been battered consistently thanks to an incompetent offensive line, and burdened by a non-existent run game. But despite persevering through as bad a hand as a QB can be dealt, we've seen glimpses of freshman Hack that keep his draft stock as high as it ought to be. He still has tremendous arm strength, solid accuracy, and even decent pocket mobility to extend plays. He won't be the top pick, and it might take a year or two for him to unlearn the tendencies (and the PTSD) he developed playing under Donovan--but there are few quarterbacks in the country--at any level--with as much raw skill as Christian Hackenebrg.
The offensive line struggles have been well documented. Was there a sense they made progress against Buffalo and how much concern is there headed into this game? Was this position group most affected depth wise due to the previous scholarship restrictions? Is there hope they will improve throughout the season and be any better than serviceable?
There's always going to be progress when you go from allowing ten sacks to allowing none (and only a pair of hits on Hackenberg), but there's not too much optimism for a couple reasons. The first is that Buffalo is, well, Buffalo. They're not a particularly good program, and they're not very strong on the defensive line. Just as importantly, Penn State lost Andrew Nelson to a knee injury--it sure looked like an ACL, after a defender rolled up his leg, though he's listed on the depth chart for this week. Nelson is probably Penn State's best lineman: he started the season at RT, but shifted to LT last week after highly-touted JuCo transfer Paris Palmer shat the bed in week 1. Now, Palmer returned to LT after Nelson went down, and played a perfectly cromulent second half, but now, there's a risk that Penn State's lost depth and talent from an already thin unit.
The offensive line struggles are less due to the sanctions than to some recruiting misses by O'Brien. For all he did well, and that includes cobbling together some very solid classes despite the scholarship limitations, O'Brien failed to leave the cupboard well stocked on the line. Much of the two-deep consists of Franklin recruits, which means a lot of sophomores and redshirt freshmen, so there aren't options beyond the struggling starters. There was no reason why Penn State couldn't improve from 2014, since Herb Hand returned 4 starters, but the OLs performance in the Temple game was abominable. There's still hope that the unit can improve--perhaps that Palmer's struggles were "first game jitters," but that improvement might be limited to reaching a final level of "not totally horrible," rather than "actually, kind of okay."
Your defense was stellar last season but has lost a few key players for this season, both to graduation and injury. What is the expectation for this group and is there concern that they will drop down a level or two? What type of game plan can we expect from the defense on Saturday?
Plenty of Penn State fans expected that Bob Shoop's unit wouldn't miss a beat, despite losing both starting defensive ends, all-B1G linebacker Mike Hull, and NFL safety Adrian Amos (as well as two of the other top 3 safeties). The good news is they were, actually, pretty much right. Former walk-on Carl Nassib has been an absolute monster at defensive end, and former highly-touted New Jersey recruit Garrett Sickels has been solid in his own right. Standout CB Jordan Lucas was shifted to safety, but true freshman John Reid has looked promising in his spot. Far more damaging than the graduations have been the injuries to three of Penn State's top 5 linebackers, especially MLB Nyeem Wartman-White, who looked poised to take a huge step forward replacing Hull. OLB Brandon Bell, who looked great in the first half against Temple, got nicked up later in that one and missed last week's game. There's also Ben Kline, who's now been banged up for the better part of three seasons but has played well on those rare occasions when healthy. Wartman-White is out for the season, while Bell is week-to-week; that left a starting unit consisting of two redshirt freshmen and a former walk-on (running back-turned-safety-turned-linebacker) against Buffalo. At full strength, this would be among the best defenses in the country. Now, there are some very real holes.
That said, the strength of the defense remains in its front four and its back four. Penn State's defensive line will bring pressure and stop the run; its defense will be aggressive, in playing tight man-coverage and general ball-hawkery. Bob Shoop is blessed with a DL good enough that he should get pressure without blitzing (seriously, Nassib had 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pick last week), so unless Rutgers is able to consisently get the ball out quickly, it'll be tough to escape the pass rush. The biggest question will be how a linebacking group lacking experience performs against a solid run game--thankfully, Austin Johnson is a massive gap-plugger, but without the instincts and sure tackling of (at least) Wartman-White, there's suddenly a weakness where the Lions had been dominant last year.
How does Penn State's special teams unit look so far and how have they fared with defending kickoff and punt returns? Are you worried that Janarion Grant will be able to inflict his will on the return game or are you confident your kickers/punters will be able to neutralize his effectiveness?
Penn State's special teams have improved mightily since the height of the sanctions, when those units consisted of gassed starters and walk-ons, because there was literally nobody else to use. The coverage teams have been pretty solid thusfar--though certainly, Penn State hasn't kicked to anyone like Janarion Grant just yet. The good news for Penn State is that its kickoff game is pretty solid. Joey Julius isn't the most accurate when it comes to field goals, but then benefit of having a 260-pound kicker nicknamed "Big Toe" is that he's a touchback waiting to happen. Half of his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks, and only one, through two games, has been returned past the 25. Penn State's punting game is much weaker. Daniel Pasquariello won the job from Chris Gulla, but he's struggled between alternatively outkicking the coverage and shanking a few. He's got the ability to do some Rugby-style angling, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Penn State either kick the ball out of bounds or try and force Grant to the sideline. That said, Penn State does have solid enough athletes that I'm not absolutely terrified of what would happen if Pasquariello inadvertently gives Grant a chance to return one.
We know the Penn State motto of being "Unrivaled". It seems like your fans laugh at Rutgers fans and think of us as the harmless little brother. If we are just another team then why did the school call for a "Stripeout" for this game? How confident are Penn State fans heading into our match-up on Saturday and how deflating of a loss would it be? Do you think Penn State-Rutgers will ever develop into a true rivalry?
So, remember last year, when Rutgers hosted Penn State in an early-season night game and also Michigan later in the year on a Saturday afternoon, and Rutgers made the PSU game its Red Out, and had its highest attendance figures ever, and so on and so forth? Well, this year, Penn State gave fans the choice of which game should be the annual White Out. By most indications, it seemed like the athletic department was hoping fans would choose Saturday's game--a primetime tilt, under the lights (where, let's face it, the White Out looks its best). Unfortunately for them, the fans chose a Michigan game, later in the year, on a Saturday afternoon. But this is a marketing department that's never been short on gimmicks (we've had a "tie dye day" in the past), and so, hoping for some spectacle, they asked for a Stripe Out. By most indications, Penn State fans aren't particularly excited about it, and I wouldn't be shocked if it was a disaster (we seem to have done a poor job disseminating information on what color to wear, and if it gets chilly, it will be a "Whatever-jacket-you-happen-to-own Out." What's worse, Penn State's having trouble selling tickets to this game, offering students the opportunity to buy extras for below face value. So, yeah. Not exactly a hotly anticipated game on our end.
Anyway, I'm not sure confident is the right word to use--even after last week's win, there's some level of resignation about this season--less about excitement than curiosity, almost, the rest of the way. Right now, though, Rutgers appears to be in even more shambles than we are, and so Saturday is less about putting in its place a program that so desperately wants to consider itself an equal than just getting through the game without another embarrassing loss. Losing Saturday wouldn't be deflating because it would be a loss to Rutgers, it's that we'd be losing, as 10-point favorites, to a program that appears to be actively imploding. As far as actual rivalry talk, the only way this series can develop into something that Penn State fans actually look forward to is if Rutgers earns its place in the upper echelon of Big Ten teams. Even though Penn State hasn't quite competed with the Ohio States and Michigan States of the Big Ten since the sanctions hit, we're still a program teeming with history and tradition. Especially in the absence of a true "rival," since Pitt went off the schedule a couple decades ago, our fans remember and look forward to playing for national and Big Ten championships and taking on top-ranked teams in games that matter. You can't manufacture a rivalry--it takes years of hard-fought competitiong both on and off the field, like PSU had with Ohio State in the late-2000s (especially while Michigan went through some down years). Until Rutgers games mean something, and consistently, it's just not a game that Penn State fans will look forward to.
How do you think this game will play out?
It's a total cop-out to say I have no idea, but that's the case. So much depends on some injury news--especially with regards to Nelson and Bell (and, for Rutgers, Darius Hamilton), and on the gameplan of a coach in whom I have zero faith. If Penn State can be said to have found some offensive mojo, and a spark-plug in true freshman Saquon Barkley, who entered in the fourth quarter against Buffalo and racked up 115 yards on 12 carries, then maybe we can see an offense that at the very least gets out of its own way. We'll see how Donovan uses the screen game, which was effective in last year's game and early on against Temple, because if Hackenberg can get the ball out quickly, I do like the matchups of some of Penn State's playmakers in space. Now, Donovan has also fallen in love with a jet sweep that I can't imagine working against a defensive as athletic as Rutgers'--so it really comes down to the kind of game that the much-maligned offensive coordinator can call. Defensively, even with the injuries at linebacker, Penn State will probably force Rutgers to nickel-and-dime its way down the field. If Penn State can force two or more turnovers, I think they'll win comfortably, but those aren't coming in spades just yet for this defense. I wouldn't be surprised to see Rutgers jump out to an early lead, and hang around much longer than they ought to, but something like 24-17, good guys feels like an appropriate final.
I wanted to thank Devon for taking the time to give us this detailed and thoughtful insight on Penn State. To read the questions Devon asked me and what my thoughts are on the game, you can read here.