Penn State football is back and our staff got together to preview the game against a pesky Indiana team.
Penn State overhauled their offensive coaching staff this offseason. What changes are you hoping to see implemented?
Nick Polak: Since the running game was mostly fantastic a year ago, I'll focus on the passing game. In 2019, Sean Clifford was often in "KJ Hamler or Bust" mode. I would really like to see him spread the ball around more in 2020, if for no other reason than to truly figure out what the team has at receiver. He'll always have trusted options in Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth to rely on, but making sure that the opposition has to plan around ALL of his options through the air will make things that much easier for those two and the offense as a whole.
Michael Stanley: I’d like to see the offensive play calling show more initiative to get the ball to their best players instead of “taking what the defense gives you.” This offense will also be more successful if the running load gets taken off of Clifford’s shoulders and the running backs get the carries they need.
Craig Fritz: I'd like to see more of a plan. At times under Ricky Rahne it seemed like things were over-thought. I think Ciarrocca has bonafide play-calling chops and will make defenses adjust to him rather than the other way around. Minnesota torched teams with an unrelenting rushing attack and deadly RPO slants in the passing game. If receivers can get open, Clifford will need to be on the money.
The running game and linebacking corp both lost their best players in the span of two months. Have your expectations for these groups changed at all and who is someone you expect to pick up the slack?
Nick Polak: My expectations for the running game haven't changed much. The unit will definitely be less explosive without potential early-round NFL selection Journey Brown (at least for now) but I expect Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, and the freshmen to pick up the slack just fine production-wise. Linebacker is a bit different given that Micah Parsons was not only perhaps the best pound-for-pound player in college football, but also because his departure means the unit will have three new starters. There's PLENTY of talent in the room and eventually, they will be perfectly fine, but there may be a growing pain or two over the first few weeks.
Michael Stanley: You can’t lose your best players, and in Micah Parsons' case, arguably the best player in the country, and simply not miss a beat. Brandon Smith is the best-equipped linebacker this year to pick up that slack and be the defense’s game wrecker. As for the running backs, no one is the home run threat Journey Brown is. Noah Cain and Devyn Ford will likely prove to be an outstanding duo but neither will produce the huge home run plays that Brown did.
Craig Fritz: I think most of the games it's not really going to make a difference. Against a team like Ohio State, you need a Micah Parsons and a Journey Brown to win. The tall task of beating the Buckeyes is more likely a pipe dream with the best defender and top-3 player on offense no longer in the mix.
Michael Penix Jr. is going to provide a big test right off the bat. What are you expecting out of Penn State's secondary, given that they always seem to get torched by decent quarterbacks in big games?
Nick Polak: I'm expecting big things from the Penn State secondary in 2020. I expect Castro-Fields, finally healthy again, to take his game to a new level and become a true number one corner. On the other side, we saw Keaton Ellis and Marquis Wilson do some great things in 2019, which makes it all the more impressive that Joey Porter Jr. has jumped both of them on the depth chart. That can only be viewed as a positive development, in my eyes. Lamont Wade has proven he can be a playmaker and another year of experience should help him become more consistent. Finally, Jaquan Brisker looks like he's going to be a nightmare over the middle for opposing QB's. I think Penix is a solid quarterback, but I really like the makeup of this secondary. I expect Indiana to score some points, but I don't think we see Penix's best day on Saturday.
Michael Stanley: This is entirely on how the safety developed over the offseason. Both Brisker and Wade are physically very talented but had huge mental mistakes throughout last season that left receivers running wide open downfield. If they’ve become quicker and more confident in their reads, Penix won’t have nearly the day Ramsey did against Penn State last year.
Craig Fritz: Penix is aces in the short passing game. Penn State needs to take that away and force him into longer throws that aren't as comfortable. I expect a better overall effort with five really good corners and more experience at safety.
We've finally made it to the end of the longest offseason ever. Give me one reason you're excited about this game and a score prediction.
Nick Polak: I'm excited because it's Penn State football. I don't believe they should be playing right now and I'm very nervous about the implications of doing so, but I can't pretend I'm not excited to see my Nittany Lions take the field. I have Penn State winning 31-26, but with the last Indiana score coming late to make it look closer than it was.
Michael Stanley: Penn State football is the single thing I’m most excited about every single year. Once the clock hits 0 on a bowl game, I start figuring out how long I have to wait until next season. With COVID almost taking away football this year, I’ve now realized it’s not a guarantee and more than ever appreciate every game we get. This game could be against a local D3 school and I’d be ready to run through a wall. Kirk Ciarrocca’s Minnesota team came bursting out of the gates last year (Ed note: it was 2 years ago, those responsible have been sacked) against Indiana so he clearly knows how to attack Tom Allen’s defense. Penn State has the athletes to keep that foot on the gas peddle. Penn State 42, Indiana 28.
Craig Fritz: It's Penn State football. No other reason necessary. Lions win a squeaker 36-33.