Image Credit: Big Ten Network
Opponent: Penn State Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-3 Big Ten Conference)
Location: Beaver Stadium (106,572)
Date: Saturday, November 1, 2014
Time: 12:00 PM ET
TV/Radio Broadcasts: ESPN2, Maryland Sports Radio Network
The Penn State Nittany Lions are in their first year of the James Franklin era, and the 2014 season has seen them experience some serious inconsistencies, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They started off their season in Dublin, Ireland, where they beat UCF by two points in a thriller of a game. They won their next three games vs. Akron, at Rutgers, and vs. Massachusetts. But the tides changed at that point for Penn State, as they lost vs. Northwestern, at Michigan, and vs. Ohio State. When the Nittany Lions have won, they’ve done it with their defense.
Penn State’s defense ranks 9th in the country in fewest points allowed per game. Bob Shoop is the team’s defensive coordinator, and had the same position at Vanderbilt when James Franklin was the head coach there. The defensive line talent in Happy Valley is outstanding. Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel are the team’s starting defensive tackles, while Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan man the defensive end spots. Barnes and Zettel are tied for the team lead with 4 sacks each, and Zettel also leads the team in tackles for loss with 8.
Senior LB Mike Hull already has 83 tackles on the season, which comes to an average of over 11 tackles per game. He had his best game of the season last week against Ohio State, recording 19 tackles (2.5 for loss), and an interception. Penn State’s front seven is one of the most talented units in the country, led by their defensive line and their outstanding middle linebacker. Maryland’s offensive line will have their hands full on Saturday afternoon.
While the Nittany Lions’ defense has been incredibly fun to watch, the offense has not been for the fans in Happy Valley. There were extremely high hopes for QB Christian Hackenburg following his amazing freshman campaign. But he has experienced some inconsistencies this season, completing just under 60% of his passes and tossing 9 interceptions and just 6 touchdowns. However, the play around him has not helped out the young quarterback. He has already taken more sacks this season than he had all of last season, a testament to the play of the offensive line. He has also had to shoulder most of the offensive load, as the team’s running game has been invisible so far this season. Penn State’s rushing game ranks 123rd in the country this season, averaging just 82.1 yards per game. In their last game against Ohio State, starting RB Zach Zwinak injured his left leg and is done for the season. Maryland’s run defense has improved over the past few weeks, but it will be their pass defense that will be tested this week by Christian Hackenburg.
The Maryland Terrapins are coming off of a demoralizing loss in Madison, Wisconsin last week, which saw them lose to the Badgers by a score of 52-7. They were thoroughly dominated in every facet of the game, and were nearly shut out. There were very few positives about the game, but the Maryland defense was able to hold Melvin Gordon to his 2nd-lowest rushing total so far this season. The Terps hold a respectable 5-3 (2-2 Big Ten Conference) record, but the next few weeks will say a lot about this team. With games against Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Rutgers remaining, the goal must be to win 2-3 of their remaining games.
Penn State’s front seven will make it very difficult for the Terps to get anything going on the ground. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will need to rely more heavily on misdirection runs and screen passes to take some pressure off of his offensive line. QB C.J. Brown will need to show poise and maturity in the face of the rowdy Penn State crowd. The coaching staff should try to get him into an early rhythm with short, easy passes to his receivers. His legs will likely be a key in this game as well, so getting him involved in the running game with a number of option plays has to be a priority.
Maryland’s defensive backfield will be tested by Christian Hackenburg in this game. DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis are the Nittany Lions’ top two receivers, and William Likely and Jeremiah Johnson need to be ready for plenty of man-to-man coverage. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart will likely attempt to get Hackenburg off-rhythm by using plenty of blitzes. He loves to blitz no matter who the Terps are playing, but expect to see the pressure dialed up even further on Saturday. Hackenburg is not a threat to run, so the defense can simply pin their ears back and come after him.
This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Travis Johnson. Travis is a Penn State football beat reporter for the Centre Daily Times. I’d like to thank him for his participation and his insightful responses.
BSL: Penn State comes into this game with a record of 4-3 (1-3 Big Ten Conference) and have lost each of their last 3 games. They came close to beating Ohio State at home last week, but fell just short in two overtimes. What have been your overall impressions of the team’s season so far, and where do they need the most improvement?
Johnson: For the most part, Penn State’s been great on defense but wildly inconsistent on offense. The Nittany Lions cannot run the ball and have given up 25 sacks. People that have covered the team have seen Christian Hackenberg absorb even more hits after he’s thrown the ball.
There were some bright spots against Ohio State. Hackenberg actually had a pocket to step up into at times and there were holes to run through.
Defensively, Penn State is playing lights out. Linebacker Mike Hull and defensive tackle Anthony Zettel are making plays and adding plenty of swagger of Bob Shoop’s schemes each week.
Special teams haven’t done much to help the offense. A punting unit ranked dead last in FBS hasn’t moved the initial line of scrimmage and has set Hull and Co. up to defend short fields.
Penn State’s offense has to run the ball. The defense has to keep doing what it’s doing.
BSL: Christian Hackenberg was one of the best quarterbacks in the country last season, but has struggled with consistency in his sophomore campaign. He has thrown just 6 touchdowns and 9 interceptions to date, and has not passed for over 250 yards in any of the team’s last four games. What have been his biggest downfalls so far this season, and what must he do to be the quarterback that James Franklin needs him to be?
Johnson: Hackenberg is just not playing well. His mechanics are shaky – somewhat a result of taking 25 sacks already (he took 21 all of last season) – but he hasn’t much improved them. Two bad throws turned into Buckeye interceptions last week and he’s not checking down when he could be. You get the sense from talking with him he’s just not found his comfort zone yet with this new offense or the coaches and it is showing. He’s still got a ton of guts, is a team player – the youngest captain Penn State’s elected – and has a strong arm. Even when he isn’t paying well, Hackenberg has the ability to make big throws that can change games.
BSL: The Penn State running game has been one of the worst in the country, and took a big hit last week when Zach Zwinak suffered an injury to his left leg. How do you expect the team to try and jump-start what has been a stagnant rushing attack?
Johnson: Two words: Akeel Lynch. Now the No. 2 man on the depth chart, Lynch should see more carries with Zach Zwinak sidelined for the season. Lynch has shown he can get North with limited work and that’s what Penn State needs, more suddenness at the line of scrimmage.
BSL: While the offense has had its issues, the Penn State defense has been one of the best in the country so far this season. Who are the players that Terps fans should be on the lookout for when Maryland has the ball?
Johnson: Zettel is the play wrecker from the inside. But Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan have made devastating plays from the ends. Austin Johnson is also paying extremely well in the middle of the d line. All of their success has made it easier on the LBs to do their jobs and Mike Hull was going to be a playmaker either way. The fact that he’s had more room to work with has only made him that more effective. Really, the entire front seven needs to be watched as one.
BSL: Last but not least, what are your keys to the game for the Nittany Lions?
Johnson: Improve play calling and timeout management.
Example of both at once from last week:
– Penn State had a third down play and two timeouts with less than two minutes remaining in the second half. Ohio State showed blitz to Penn State’s empty backfield, no tight end look. Hackenberg took the snap, OSU blitzed and he had to throw it early. Incomplete. Gotta call a timeout there or audible into a formation with more blockers.
Run the ball.
Eliminate poor choices with the football.
Hackenberg can’t throw the passes he did against the Buckeyes.
Zack’s Keys to the Game
- Pressure Hackenburg - When Christian Hackenburg is given time in the pocket, he can pick apart a defense. Brian Stewart has to dial up the pressure early and often in an attempt to get the young quarterback out of his rhythm.
- Sustain your drives - Even if every drive doesn’t result in points, the Maryland offense needs to be able to play the field-position game right along with Penn State. This game will likely be won with defense.
- Play smart - Penn State’s offense has been incredibly inconsistent. But if they get the ball in your territory after a turnover or another mistake, it’s a lot easier for them to find their rhythm. Avoid that by playing smart and protecting the football.
- Remember VT? - Last season, the Terps made their way down to Blacksburg and beat what was an extremely good defensive team. It made a big impact on this team, and it should give them the confidence necessary to head up to Happy Valley and come away with a big road win.
- Play around C.J. - C.J. Brown will be the key to this game for the Terps. He will need to be on top of his game, play smart with the football, and lead a clutch drive or two in order for Maryland to come away with a win.