Aaron Yorke, assistant editor for Penn State’s SB Nation blog Black Shoe Diaries, was kind enough to answer a few questions about the Nittany Lions ahead of Saturday’s Battle for the Governor’s Victory Bell at Beaver Stadium.
The Daily Gopher: Christian Hackenberg is out, and in steps Trace McSorley. How are the Nittany Lions feeling about their sophomore quarterback after four games?
Aaron Yorke: I think the Lions should feel pretty good about how McSorley is playing. He's quickly proving to be a more accurate passer than Hackenberg was, and while he doesn't have the arm strength of an elite NFL prospect, the new guy has been more efficient when it comes to moving the chains. As fun as McSorley has been to watch at times, we've also seen some of his inexperience creep up at key spots. In the Kent State game, he didn't feel a pass rusher coming and was sacked for a fumble that the Flashes ran into the end zone. In the narrow loss to Pitt, McSorley looked like the hero when he brilliantly converted on 4th-and-16, but later in the drive he recklessly tossed the ball into the air when Penn State was within range of the equalizing field goal. Pitt intercepted the errant toss to end the game. After a solid game against Temple in which he gained 287 yards through the air on just 24 passes, McSorley struggled along with the rest of the Lions in the Michigan game. The results have been mixed so far, but I think we've seen enough good out of McSorley to be confident that the future with him under center is bright.
TDG: Coming into this season, everyone expected sophomore running back Saquon Barkley to be the focal point of the Penn State offense. But the Nittany Lions currently rank 122nd in the country in rushing yards per game (averaging 101.3 ypg). What has kept this rushing attack from reaching its potential?
AY: Barkley's talent is undeniable, and while the offensive line has improved with experience, it's still not good enough to open up gaps for the tailback on a consistent basis. Barkley is also guilty himself of going for the big play instead of taking what's in front of him and creating easier third-down situations. With a little more discipline, the sophomore can run for more consistent gains while maintaining the big-play ability that made him such a breakout star last year. When Barkley was banged up during the Temple game, we saw James Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead start to rotate some of the other backs onto the field. Perhaps by not giving him a full workload, the coaches can save Barkley's strength for when the team needs it most.
TDG: From what I've read, the current linebacker situation at Linebacker U is grim to say the least. The Gophers aren't afraid to air it out with senior quarterback Mitch Leidner, but will lean on a three-headed monster at running back to pound the Nittany Lions, who rank 104th in the country in rushing defense through the first four games of the season. Is this a match made in Heaven for the Gophers' rushing attack?
AY: It seems to be a dream matchup for Minnesota on paper. Both Pitt and Michigan torched the Penn State defense for over 300 yards on the ground, which was tough to watch for Penn State fans who are used to their team bottling up opposing runners. We know that Nyeem Wartman-White is done for the year, and it looks like the other starting linebackers, Brandon Bell and Jason Cambinda, will remain out for the foreseeable future as well. The Gophers are obviously looking to run the ball, so Penn State will once again need to stack the box and force Mitch Leidner to beat them with his arm. It sounds like a good strategy, but Michigan was able to run the ball super effectively last week even though its quarterback averaged less than six yards per throw.
TDG: Head coach James Franklin is the topic of much discussion when the talking heads turn their attention to "coaching hot seats." How are Penn State fans feeling about their head coach, and is his situation as dire as some in the media have made it out to be?
AY: If the athletic department is expecting Franklin to win 10 games this year, then he's on the hot seat. The media seems to think that that is the case, but I don't, and it's pretty simple to see why. The NCAA sanctions limiting Penn State's recruiting classes were issued in July 2012 and not repealed until September 2014. The student-athletes who are juniors and seniors on the current team started playing in 2013 and 2014, respectively, which means they were recruited when Bill O'Brien and James Franklin didn't have a full allotment of scholarships at their disposal. We'll likely see a gradual improvement for this program as Franklin's first full classes grow into upperclassman, and I think athletic director Sandy Barbour understands that. It's funny that O'Brien is seen as a much better coach than Franklin because he came in right before the sanctions were issued and led Penn State to a couple of winning seasons. The upperclassmen on those teams, however, were made of mostly full classes from years prior. You can argue that it's Franklin who has been more shorthanded in his quest to restore Penn State to glory.
TDG: The Nittany Lions have not held the coveted Governor's Victory Bell since the Gophers seized it with a 24-10 win over Penn State on November 9, 2013. Has the absence of the Bell cast a shadow over the program the last three years, and have you been able to sleep at night knowing that Minnesota possesses it?
AY: Only the absence of the Land Grant Trophy looms larger than that of the Governor's Victory Bell in Penn State's trophy chest. The split of Penn State and Minnesota into separate divisions upon Big Ten expansion has forced the Battle for the Bell to be played far less frequently than it rightfully should. That's why the rivalry has fallen by the wayside in recent years, but I fully expect this to evolve into the conference's premier game once the Gophers and Lions take over their respective divisions. In fact, you've inspired me to lobby commissioner Delany to protect this important matchup. If Indiana and Purdue can have a protected matchup, why can't we? Why can't we?!
TDG: So who brings home the Bell on Saturday? Give me your prediction.
AY: Minnesota will be able to run the ball on Penn State, but the Lions won't get completely manhandled the way they did against Michigan. In other words, this game should play out a lot like the Pitt game. If Penn State can limit its turnovers this time around, it should be able to pull out a victory at home. I've got Penn State winning 27-20.
Thank you to Aaron for giving us the inside scoop on the Penn State Nittany Lions! We all know what’s at stake on Saturday in State College. Good luck to all Gopher fans making the trip to Beaver Stadium. Don’t forget to come back with the Bell! Otherwise everyone in Minnesota will be sad.