After nearly 10 months, the longest offseason in history is finally over and Penn State Football is back. However, this is not the normal season opener. With Indiana as its opponent, Penn State will play a Big Ten team in a season opener for the first time since 1994, when the Nittany Lions beat Minnesota 56-3.
Additionally, with the game being a 6.5-point spread in favor of Penn State, the Nittany Lions won’t be able to experiment as much as they have in other season openers. Since 2016, the only close first game of the season was against Appalachian State, which unexpectedly went into overtime. Other than that, it’s been all blowouts, and time for Penn State’s offense to settle in against an inferior opponent.
With a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca, the Nittany Lions will install a new offense, without any time to get it prepared in time for Big Ten play. This will undoubtedly be a major challenge for this Penn State team early in the season.
Due this change in offense, the departure of Micah Parsons, the health of Journey Brown, as well as the influx of young players likely to see playing time, there are seemingly more unknowns than we’ve seen from this program in a long time. That being said, the Nittany Lions are still in a position to have a very successful season.
Let’s take a look at three Nittany Lions, who will be key in helping the team get started on the right note this season at Indiana.
As announced late Monday night, Journey Brown will potentially miss the entire 2020 season with a health condition. While there’s no doubt that the loss of Brown is huge, running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider has done a phenomenal job of recruiting and developing arguably the best running back room in the country.
Sophomore running back Noah Cain is now the No. 1 running back on the depth chart and there’s no doubt he’s now become one of the most important players for Penn State this season. Cain was a major contributor next to Journey Brown in his freshman season, logging 84 carries for 443 yards and eight touchdowns. More than 25% of Cain’s carries on the season came against Iowa, where he had 22 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown. This included running out the clock to seal the game for the Nittany Lions.
Cain reminds me of Nick Chubb, in the sense that he seemingly always gains five to seven yards each rush, always falling forward. Expect Cain to get near 20 carries in this game for the Nittany Lions. If he can repeat his 5.3 yards per carry from 2019 and run for over 100 yards in this game, then Penn State will likely control the time of possession and keep its defense off the field, putting it in a good position to win this football game.
With Micah Parsons opting out for this season, redshirt sophomore defensive end Jayson Oweh likely becomes the best player on defense for the Nittany Lions. After backing up Yetur Gross-Matos for the past two seasons, the sophomore will finally get his chance to start.
In his limited role in 2019, Oweh recorded five sacks and five tackles for loss. If his efficiency remains off-the-charts, Oweh could be looking at a near-double-digit sack season in 2020, and potentially hear his name called in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Oweh is a crazy athlete, as he runs a 4.33 40-yard dash at 6’5,” 256 lbs. This will make him near impossible to block all season.
In terms of this game, it’ll be extremely important for Penn State to get a ton of pressure on Indiana’s quarterback, redshirt sophomore Michael Penix. Penix is Indiana’s best player and a quarterback that relies on his legs a ton. It will be the defensive line’s job, led by Oweh, to contain and rattle him.
Coach Chaos might be gone, but if the Nittany Lions’ defensive line causes chaos on Saturday, you can bet that a ton of it will be due to defensive end Jayson Oweh.
Joey Porter Jr.
In a major surprise, redshirt freshman Joey Porter Jr. was named the starting cornerback alongside Tariq Castro-Fields on the depth chart released Tuesday.
Penn State’s defense ranked 12th in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game (232.5) in 2019. With safety Garrett Taylor and cornerback John Reid graduating, the secondary remains a huge question mark going into the 2020 season.
Tariq Castro-Fields and safeties Lamont Wade and Jaquan Brisker return, but all three weren’t great in coverage last season. The secondary will have their hands full in Bloomington, as they’ll face WR Whop Philyor, who had 70 receptions for 1002 yards and five touchdowns in 2019.
Joey Porter Jr. has a massive opportunity to prove himself in this game. At 6’2” with great athleticism, the tools are there. If Porter Jr. can become a reliable cover corner this season, it would be a tremendous help to the secondary and defense as a whole.
If he can’t and struggles vs. Indiana, expect cornerbacks Marquis Wilson and Keaton Ellis to see an increased amount of playing time.
Honorable Mention: Parker Washington
Another surprise on the depth chart was seeing true freshman wide receiver Parker Washington get the nod at starting wide receiver. Washington is only 5’10,” so he’ll likely see most of his snaps from the slot, but he plays like he’s 6’4” with his ability to catch almost everything.
In Tuesday’s press conference, James Franklin said Washington has “elite ball skills” and he wasn’t lying.
Since Washington is a true freshman and hasn’t played a college game yet, it won’t be easy for Indiana to game plan for him. Expect Washington to be a potential X-factor in this game.