Penn State is coming off two losses by a combined four points the past two weeks on the road against Ohio State and Michigan State. The Nittany Lions are a few plays away from still being undefeated and the #2 team in the country. Instead, Penn State enters this game #14 in the latest college football playoff rankings. However, they will still pose a major challenge for Rutgers this weekend. It’s homecoming in Happy Valley and James Franklin’s team, currently favored by 31 points, will be looking to take out their frustration on the Scarlet Knights.
I was fortunate to speak with Aaron Yorke of SB Nation’s Penn State site, Black Shoe Diaries. I asked Aaron about the recent skid, the dynamic duo of Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley, as well as the current state of the defense. Let’s kick things off.
Are the past two losses a cause for concern the rest of the season or can it merely be attributed to just losing close games on the road to two good teams?
AY: The last two weeks have been heartbreaking for Penn State fans. It's easy to imagine this team still being undefeated had just a couple of plays gone differently. As disappointing as the back-to-back losses have been, I don't think the Nittany Lions losing two close games to two very good teams on the road is a major cause for concern. Clearly, Penn State's running game and pass defense aren't as solid as we thought they were, but James Franklin's squad should be able to get its swagger back down the stretch against Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland.
What is the pulse of the fan base after back to back conference losses? Were expectations championship or bust this season?
AY: I don't think it was a title-or-bust campaign, but after starting the season 7-0, many fans expected to make the Playoff. That's what made Saturday's loss to Michigan State all the more devastating. Ohio State was in the middle of losing to Iowa and opening up a path for the Lions to return to the Big Ten Championship Game, and yet Trace McSorley and company could not get the job done in East Lansing. The fan base might still be wondering what could have been, but I'm confident that Franklin will have the players and coaches ready for this upcoming clash with Rutgers.
It seems like QB Trace McSorley gets overshadowed by running back Saquon Barkley, but he is having a pretty good season, statistically speaking. How has he improved and how good can he ultimately be?
AY: McSorley might end up with fewer touchdowns and more interceptions than last year, but his completion percentage is up dramatically, and he's doing a much better job moving the chains. The biggest statistic that shows McSorley's growth is Penn State's third down conversion percentage, which is up seven percent from last year, when the Lions allowed a higher conversion rate on defense than they achieved on offense. Since Penn State plays a lot of option in the running game, McSorley is heavily involved with his decision-making on run and pass plays, and that makes him the most important player on offense.
How would you rate the defensive performance this season and what are their biggest strengths and weaknesses?
AY: During the first seven games of the season, I thought the defense was the better half of the football team, but the unit has been exposed in two losses to the two best teams on Penn State's schedule. Following a great game against Michigan in which the Lions stopped the run and got after the quarterback, we saw Ohio State score touchdowns on three straight fourth-quarter possessions to complete a stunning comeback. During the stretch, Penn State failed to get pressure on Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett and the coverage in the secondary broke down as a result. The Lions had similar problems against Brian Lewerke and Michigan State a week later, as wide receiver Felton Davis III proved to be unstoppable.
The run defense for Penn State has held up during the two-game skid, but the pass rush and secondary are not a a championship level right now.
The special teams unit hasn't been great this season, what have been the biggest issues?
AY: Tyler Davis was one of the most reliable kickers in the country last season, but this year he has struggled mightily, with just eight of his 15 field goal attempts going through the uprights. He's done a better job on kickoffs, but overall this season has been a big disappointment for Davis. The good news is that Blake Gillikin has proven to be a reliable punter and that Saquon Barkley has turned the kick return game into a major weapon. Even when he doesn't receive the kick, Barkley gives the Lions good field position just by being on the field and forcing the other team to avoid him.
For any Rutgers fans visiting Happy Valley, where do you recommend a few places that they should check out while in town?
AY: The Creamery should be any visiting fan's top destination. It's not too far from Beaver Stadium and the ice cream is wonderful, even on a cold day. Plus, you can always get hot chocolate there if you want to warm up. If you're downtown, my favorite spots are Bar Bleu and Mad Mex for chilling with friends after the game.
What is your prediction for this game?
AY: Rutgers doesn't have the type of aggressive passing attack that has given Penn State trouble over the past two weeks, so I think the Lions roll 38-3.
Thanks to Aaron Yorke for giving us great insight on Penn State football. You can follow him on twitter here. For more coverage on the Nittany Lions, visit Black Shoe Diaries. To read my answers to Aaron’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.