The Nittany Lions are back in Beaver Stadium after a big win in Pittsburgh. They return as big favorites against the rebuilding Kent State Golden Flashes. We once again have three of our staff members sharing their thoughts on Penn State through two games, what to expect on Saturday, and beyond.
Penn State started fast against Pitt with a touchdown on the first drive, much like they did versus Appalachian State, before stalling for pretty much the rest of the half. What have you seen through two games that might explain that scenario?
Joe McIntyre: I think boom or bust is just what we’re going to get with this Penn State offense. It felt similar under Joe Moorhead in that there were stretches where one dropped ball or one errant pass could derail a drive, while others saw the Lions put up six points in just 60 seconds. Penn State is rarely ever going to be a team that methodically drives down the field for seven minutes to put up points. The scores can come quick and so too can the three and outs. It’s just the nature of this offense and not something to get too worked up about when they’re putting up the points they have been.
Nick Polak: The passing game hasn’t found consistency yet. There have been nine dropped passes through two games, and some of them have been drive-killers. Just half of those drops turning into catches would be enough to help this team turn many of those three-and-outs and stalled drives into points. Additionally, there’s been a clear emphasis to establish the run game with Miles Sanders and Trace McSorley. They’re running a lot of option plays, which always have, like Joe mentioned, a boom or bust quality to them. Still, if the passing game finds its groove, I think we’ll see the team start to get out to more sustained fast starts, similar to last year.
Matt Filipovitis: It’s just been taking advantage of the defense before they really settle in. Penn State threw some fun plays at Pitt on that first drive, especially the KJ Hamler jet sweep. Running those quirky plays early on is a great way to snag some points. Once defenses really settle in you don’t have the ability to make changes on offense until the half, where Penn State is among the best in the nation. The halftime adjustments are second to none, so I’m actually fine starting off slow if it means being able to drop 35-plus points to close out a game.
On the other side of the ball, Penn State’s defense has had long stretches of solid play, surrounded by the catastrophic fourth quarter in the opener, and an inability to stop the run for the first 30 minutes against Pitt. Any obvious explanation here?
Joe: If someone has a concrete answer to why this happens I’d love to hear it. I hope it’s a lack of experience that’s contributing to the issues, meaning it’s something that will correct itself as the season wears on. James Franklin talked a bit about it in his postgame press conference, but he attributed the Lions’ inability to stop the run to some issues in the way the ends attacked their gaps and Pitt’s pressure identification. When the Lions went with a bit more base defense in the second half, the game obviously turned around. While I’m certainly not a coach by any means, it seems like these are issues that can be fixed with more reps and (at times) quicker adjustments from coaches. Let’s hope they’re a bit better come Sept. 29.
Nick: Honestly, the issue may have been solved in that second half against Pitt. It was night and day from the first half and was even more impressive than what we saw in quarters one-through-three against App State. They had the benefit of knowing that Kenny Pickett wasn’t going to, or wasn’t going to be trusted to, do anything through the air, but the way they controlled the gaps and rallied to the ball was impressive. As far as an explanation though, I’m pinning a good chunk of it on inexperience. Don’t forget, they’re running out anywhere from nine-to-eleven new full-time starters on every defensive snap. That’s a lot of inexperience to deal with.
Matt: It’s all just growing pains. This is still a very young defense up the middle, so you’re going to have days like those before everything really starts to click. Kevin Givens being out in week one really threw off the rotations as well. Now that he’s played a game, everyone will have a better idea of their role and responsibility. Guys like Jan Johnson and Micah Parsons will be able to fill gaps a lot better as they get their reps. It all comes down to experience in the trenches, which plays in Penn State’s favor here in the next two weeks because a lot of guys could get a ton of game experience.
Speaking of game experience, with the Nittany Lions favored by five tuddies, plenty of players figure to get longer looks or their first real action of the season. Which player, on each side of the ball, are you excited to see get a shot?
Joe: On offense, it’s receiver Jahan Dotson. He was talked up big during camp and is expected to see some time this Saturday as part of the four-game redshirt rule. I want to see what kind of juice this guy’s got. On defense, I want to see Jesse Luketa get some more game action. With the linebacker position as shaky as it has been early, let’s see what the freshman can do with some more significant playing time. I’m sure he won’t force the coaches’ hands as far as playing him over the likes of Koa Farmer, but it would be great to see him make some plays.
Nick: This may be cheating because we’ve seen him in short bursts already, but I’m really hoping to see a lot of Pat Freiermuth. James Franklin had some great praise for him at Wednesday’s media availability, so I expect to see him get a bunch of snaps this week. He has the ability to be one of the better all-around tight ends Penn State has had in some time. Defensively, I’d like to see P.J. Mustipher get a big chunk of snaps. He’s played sparingly so far, but this game should give the staff a chance to have him in there against Kent State’s starters for multiple series.
Matt: I’m really hoping to get a large dose of Mac Hippenhammer this weekend. It seems he gets overlooked when we talk about the receivers room. He’s a freak of an athlete, anybody who’s able to play two sports at this level is. He showed great ball skills on his touchdown catch last week, and I’m curious to see if that was just a flash in the pan, or if he can do that on a consistent basis. On defense, it’s Jesse Luketa. He’s not going to redshirt, but whether he’ll be a special teams guy or a regular rotation linebacker will be decided in the next two weeks.
Because we’re fans and not players, let’s look ahead just a bit. The next two games are generally viewed as layups and prep time for Ohio State at the end of the month. What are a couple of things you would like to see get sorted out before the Buckeyes come to town?
Joe: I want to see Juwan Johnson prove that he’s able to make an important catch. It’s been a rough go of it early for the wide receiver, and the Lions are going to need him to step up big if they want to beat the Buckeyes. On the defensive side, I’d like to see some consistency. So far, the highs have been quite high, while the lows have been downright ugly.
Nick: Stop dropping the football. As I mentioned above, the drops are really the only thing separating this offense from being just as dominant as last year’s right now. I’d really like to see the receivers, specifically, Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins, hold onto the ball and make some plays. I’d also like to see the staff give Micah Parsons as many snaps as he can handle in the next two games to get a good read on whether or not they can insert him into the starting lineup against Ohio State to deal with the speed and power of J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber.
Matt: The drops need to go away. You can get away with errors like that early in the season, but those are the mistakes that cost you games in the Big Ten. I get that weather plays a factor, so maybe it’s nothing more than a blip in the radar, but it would be great to not have a drop on Saturday to get it out of the back of everyone's head. On the defensive side, I’d like to see us get to the quarterback more. This is a defense that made its living behind the line of scrimmage last season. Kevin Givens's absence in game one and Shane Simmons’s injury surely throw a wrench in those plans, but there’s still enough talent along the line to get to the quarterback consistently.
As I mentioned, the Lions are a 35-point favorite heading into Saturday’s game. Does Penn State cover that big spread? What is your prediction for the game?
Joe: Penn State now knows what happens when you don’t keep your foot to the opponent’s throat for four full quarters. You can’t let up against any team in college football, no matter who they are. While I’m expecting (hoping) to see some of Tommy Stevens and Sean Clifford, I don’t think putting in the backups means there will be any letting up on Saturday. 48-10 Lions.
Nick: 35 points is quite a few, but I think they’ll be able to do it. Kent State quarterback Woody Barrett will give their fans a show this year, but he won’t be able to beat Penn State by himself. Most of us are expecting the backups to get a lot of playing time in this one for the Lions, and while that means there will be more inexperience on the field, it means the coaching staff will keep the playbook wide open to allow those guys to get a true taste of the offense. Give me Penn State by a final of 52-10, with the backups putting up anywhere from two-to-three tuddies.
Matt: They only reason they wouldn’t cover the spread would be they pull the starters too early and Kent State gets some garbage time tuddies. This team is just far too talented to not blow the Golden Flashes away. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some Will Levis action late to keep Sean Clifford healthy, especially if Tommy Stevens is a no go. Even that won’t be enough for Kent State to stay in it and the Nittany Lions glide to a 63-10 victory.