So we're back at it again. Asking questions of the rival. How quaint.
Devon Edwards, from Black Shoe Diaries, was kind enough to return my emails this week and answers some questions about Penn State. Be sure to check out my answers to Devon's questions over at BSD and laugh uproariously (as the BSD commentariate did, at my typos).
JDMill: First of all, forgive me if you're tired of getting questions about this still (it's kind of how we feel about answering Jerry Kill seizure questions), but we're a couple of years past the Sandusky stuff at this point. Bill O'Brien is in his second year after pushing the Nittany Lions to a very solid 2012 season. Penn State is 5-3, but unable to go bowling in 2013. Tell us a little bit about how the fan base is feeling about the program now that the dust has settled a bit.
Devon Edwards: The sense is somewhere between relief that Penn State's still able to be competitive in the Big Ten (if not necessarily a conference championship-caliber team, as had been a realistic goal in the preceeding five years or so), excitement that the sanctions are going to be out of the way earlier than we'd all thought (the scholarship domino was the first to fall; most expect the bowl ban will be lifted before 2015), though tinged with a bit of building frustration at how this year in particular has gone, Michigan game aside, and some worry about the immediate future. But we got lucky, just as soon as we started to come to terms with the new future, the NCAA went and changed it, and the light at the end of the tunnel is nearer and brighter than we might have expected.
JD: By all accounts, O'Brien has PSU ahead of schedule as far as rebuilding following the [redacted]. How has he done it?
DE: Honestly, it was a matter of keeping the team together first and foremost, because if it hadn't been for his efforts (along with those of Mike Mauti and Mike Zordich), we honestly might not have had enough players to field a team last year or this year. Last year's team lost a couple key pieces, to be sure, but it was still talented and deeper than a team with the kind of roster issues should have been. This year, depth has been a far greater concern, especially at linebacker and in the secondary, but the offense and defensive line has enough players that Penn State's in the middle of the pack of a mediocre Big Ten. Credit O'Brien's recruiting the past two years, too, plenty of sophomores and freshmen play major or starting roles on this team.
JD: PSU loses to Indiana, beats Michigan, gets smoked by OSU, survives against Illinois in OT.
DE: Yes, that is an accurate summation of the past four games.
[Editors note: I think I was planning to actually go somewhere and ask a question after that statement, but apparently I just abandoned it. So, you know, hooray for proof-reading!!!]
DE: Yeah, it's pretty much all A-Rob, who's the best wide receiver if not in the country then certainly in the Big Ten. He's caught more than a third of Hackenberg's completions, more than twice as many passes as anyone else, with more than 3 times as many receiving yards and twice as many TDs as anyone else. It's not just that he's a great route-runner who can get open with terrific ball skills to come down with tough passes (see: his leaping, twisting sideline catches against Michigan and Illinois), he's also incredibly slippery in the open field, leading to plenty of use in the screen game. Now, Penn State does have other targets; namely the tight ends Kyle Carter (who's been largely invisible after a great freshman campaign a year ago but is still a matchup problem down the field) and Jesse James (who's just a huge target, at about 6'7, 260), as well as wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder, but Allen Robinson will probably catch as many passes as those guys put together.
JD: Talk a bit about the PSU run game. Bill Belton (16 att/game) and Zach Zwinak (12.6 att/game) are splitting carries and averaging 136 yards/game as a tandem. How are these two backs used in the running game?
DE: Well, Zwinak and Belton really aren't splitting carries. [Ed. note: shows you how much PSU football I've actually watched] Zwinak was the starter at the start of the year, but ineffectiveness and fumble issues lost him the starting spot early in the Michigan game. Belton, a converted QB-cum-WR, has been the guy since then, and he's been little short of excellent, culminating last week in a 36-carry 200-yard performance. The dream had long been for Zwinak and Belton to form a thunder-and-lightning tandem with Zwinak, the former fullback, gaining the short yardage and Belton serving as home run threat, but Belton's patience and balance have been much improved to the point where he's just about as good when Penn State needs a yard or two. Zwinak was a tank last year, but he seemed to have lost a step during the offseason, and honestly, the switch was a long time coming.
JD: From a defensive standpoint, PSU ranks in the middle of the pack in pretty much every category (Rush D: 7, Pass D: 7, Total D: 7) and drops off only slightly in Scoring Defense (ranking 9th giving up 27.8ppg). Where is this defense particularly strong, and where are they susceptible?
DE: The defense is great up front and pretty terrible on the edges. If you try to run the ball up the middle against the front seven, you will fail. Michigan learned this the hard way, with their running backs gaining a total of 28 yards on 30 carries. DaQuan Jones is one of the better defensive tackles in the country, and even when he's not disrupting plays in the backfield, he's pushing the pocket or taking on double teams. The linebackers, led by Glenn Carson and Mike Hull, are solid enough at flowing to the ball, if mediocre in coverage. The secondary is a major weakness; not only is this team still incapable of defending a bubble screen, or playing press coverage (i.e.: get the ball outside quickly and watch the yards rack up), but John Butler shoots himself in the foot by constantly dialing up blitzes that leave young overmatched corners like Jordan Lucas or Trevor Williams--the latter mercifully replaced by CB-turned-S-turned-back-to-a-CB Adrian Amos--in single coverage, with only former walk-ons (Ryan Keiser, Jesse Della Valle) or should-be-depth-guys (Malcolm Willis, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong) behind them.
JD: Prediction time. Who wins? How do they make it happen? What is the final score?
DE: Look, don't take this the wrong way, but I can't buy Minnesota. Not yet, not really, because I look to the Big Ten statistics page and can't find anything you're all that good at, besides time of possession. Granted, any team with even a mediocre quarterback should be able to move the ball against the Penn State defense, but we've done a much better job against pro-style than spread offenses this season, and Minnesota looks as conventional as any team in the Big Ten. [Ed. note: Oh.] Offensively, it's up to how quickly Christian Hackenberg can settle in, something he really struggled to do early, or at all, in the two previous road games this season, but Bill Belton's big game last week gives us the hope that we won't have to go one-dimensional. This should be a tight one, but I think it's time for the Gophers to stumble. Penn State 27, Minnesota 24.