We are one day away from Penn State visiting Rutgers in a primetime matchup that is the last home game for the senior class. The #9 Nittany Lions have Big Ten East title dreams in their heads and Rutgers is simply fighting for respect. After close losses to three conference foes with a .500 record or better, Michigan State handed the Scarlet Knights a demoralizing blow out loss last weekend. How will Rutgers respond against their fourth top ten ranked opponent of the season is the big question in this game.
In looking for more information on the current status of Penn State football, I was fortunate to speak with Aaron Yorke from SB Nation’s Black Shoe Diaries. Aaron gave some good insight on how they have turned around their season, what makes the offense tick, and key players to watch for in tomorrow’s game. Let’s get started.
Penn State lost to Michigan 49-10 and had just a 2-2 record at the end of September. They've now won six games in a row. What has changed and how good do you think this team can be by season's end?
The run defense that looked so horrible against Pitt and Michigan got a big kick in the rear when Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda returned from injury. Those two gave the Lions the boost they needed to slow down Maryland’s offense and even Ohio State’s. The offensive line has also gradually improved over the course of the season and gotten better at opening up space for Saquon Barkley to scamper through. However, injuries to Andrew Nelson, Brendan Mahon, and Paris Palmer have turned that group into a problem again. The good news is that quarterback Trace McSorley showed against Indiana that he doesn’t need a running game backing him up to be effective. If the offensive line bounces back from its struggle-filled performance against the Hoosiers, the Lions can compete for a Big Ten championship. If not, Penn State could drop a game down the stretch due to increased pressure on McSorley to carry the offense.
Entering the season, the pressure was certainly on head coach James Franklin to produce better results after back to back 7-6 years. What seemed to be bare minimum expectations of the fan base entering the season and what are reasonable expectations now for the rest of the season due to the current win streak?
Coming into the season, Franklin was expected to at least make a bowl game and show growth with his young roster. Now that he’s overachieved, the fan base is looking at a 10-win season as the next goal. Penn State does not control its own destiny as far as the Big Ten Championship is concerned, but now that Iowa has opened the door by upsetting Michigan, many fans are anticipating a Big Ten title for Franklin in his third year with the program. That would certainly do a lot to silence his doubters.
Running back Saquon Barkley is having a phenomenal season. Has he exceeded expectations? How much has the offensive line impacted his success and improved this year?
Barkley was expected to put up some Heisman-worthy numbers coming into the 2016 campaign, and so far he’s done just that with 1,113 yards and 13 touchdowns. I’d say he’s just about met expectations after last year’s breakout, but the Indiana game was a disappointment, as the sophomore rushed for just 58 yards despite a career-high 33 carries. Before that, Barkley had rushed for an average of 169 yards in his last four games, and that had a lot to do with improved offensive line play as well as the halfback’s own extraordinary abilities. It’s impossible for any back to put on a great performance without solid line play, so it will be interesting to see how Barkley performs going forward with Penn State’s line in flux.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of quarterback Trace McSorley and how has he fared versus expectations for him at the start of the season?
McSorley is pretty much the opposite of Penn State’s former three-year starting quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Instead of being a prototypical NFL prospect, McSorley played some defense in high school and lacks elite arm strength. Still, that doesn’t stop him from pushing the ball downfield and allowing his receivers to make plays on the ball. Fortunately, another two areas where McSorley differs from Hackenberg are pocket presence and mobility. When the redshirt sophomore is under pressure, he’s often able to get rid of the ball or escape the pocket to minimize damage. McSorley’s quickness also makes him a weapon in the read option when the defense keys on Barkley too heavily. With 8.82 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns, and five interceptions, I’d say McSorley has exceeded expectations this season, although his 55-percent completion rate leaves something to be desired.
The defense has been very good again this season. Please name some of the key personnel on that side of the ball and describe the strengths of the unit overall. How do you expect them to scheme against Rutgers.
Although linebacker injuries caused Penn State to be vulnerable to the run at the beginning of the season, lately the unit has been much more balanced. That’s probably because Bell and Cambinda are two of the most talented players on the roster with their ability to close gaps and cut off opposing runners before they reach the edge of the defense. Up front, redshirt junior defensive end Garrett Sickels and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Kevin Givens anchor a line that has had to deal with the departures of major players from last year’s squad. In the secondary, upperclassmen Marcus Allen and Malik Golden lead the team in tackles from their safety spots while John Reid and Grant Haley have excelled at cornerback. On Saturday, I’m expecting Penn State to focus on stopping Rutgers’ running attack in order to force inexperienced quarterback Giovanni Rescigno to make plays with his arm.
Special Teams play was key in the victory over Ohio State. Please breakdown the kicking game and how Penn State has fared in kick coverage this season.
Redshirt junior kicker Tyler Davis has been excellent for Penn State this year with 100 percent extra points made and a 16-for-18 performance on field goals. Those only two misses were both blocked, so every time Davis had gotten a kick past the line, it’s gone through. Kick coverage has been solid as well, with an assist to kickoff specialist Joey Julius. Early in the season, big No. 99 showcased his tackling skills with big hits on opponents’ kickoff returns as well as a bizarre ability to draw personal fouls.
What is your prediction for the game?
If Penn State has trouble running the ball like it did against Indiana, this game could turn into a defensive struggle with punts galore. However, I think Penn State gets back on track against a struggling Rutgers defense. Penn State 35 Rutgers 10
Thanks to Aaron for giving us great insight on Penn State ahead of tomorrow’s game. For more on the Nittany Lions, make sure to visit Black Shoe Diaries. To read my answers to Aaron’s questions, click here.