I’m still riding high off that Cubs win last night, and to my fellow Cubs fans, I’m so happy for all of you. That being said, there’s still Hawkeye football to be played, so it’s time to shift our focus back to the Hawks no matter how hard it might be for some of us. This week, we’ve got some primetime action in State College. It’s been a while since we last hooked up with Penn State, so chances are you probably haven’t paid too much attention to them. To get you up to speed on how their team looks, Aaron Yorke from Black Shoe Diaries was kind enough to answer some questions about the Nittany Lions. Let’s get to the questions!
Max: Penn State started the season off a bit slow, jumping out to a 2-2 record and then needing overtime to beat what we now know is a pretty bad Minnesota team, but they seem to have to put it all together as of late. What has changed for this team that has allowed it the kind of success it's now achieving, and are they for real?
Aaron: I don't really think Minnesota is that bad, but many see that game as a jumping off point for Penn State. Perhaps the biggest difference for this team has been the improvement in rush defense thanks to the return of injured linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda. Both players got healthy in time for the Ohio State game and were big factors in the Lions limiting the Buckeyes' rushing attack in that pivotal game. The Lions will be considered "for real" as long as they keep winning games, since they'll likely be favored in every one for the rest of the season. The improved defense seems to be real, as does the talent of sophomore halfback Saquon Barkley. What Penn State fans really want to see, is more consistency from the passing game, which has completed fewer than 53 percent of its passes in each of the last four games.
Max: At the beginning of the season, people were calling for James Franklin's head and saying he wasn't a very good coach. Has the hot seat cooled down in State College, and was it ever that hot to begin with?
Aaron: The fan base and the national media thought Franklin's seat was hot, but I don't think it was ever very warm from the athletic director's perspective. No one wants to hear about the sanctions that the NCAA levied on Penn State four years ago, but the truth is that they are still impacting the team because of the smaller recruiting classes that limited Bill O'Brien's and later Franklin's ability to bring in talent. That stipulation made it easy for athletic director Sandy Barbour to give Franklin a vote of confidence even before he ditched his "never wins the big game" label against Ohio State.
Max: Saquon Barkley is the bellcow of the Penn State backfield, as he has over 130 more carries than the next guy. What kind of runner is he, and in what ways do the Nittany Lions coaches like to utilize him?
Aaron: Barkley is extremely athletic, and he'll use his speed and agility on a regular basis. He's not always the quickest to the hole, but he's an expert at breaking tackles and taking advantage of open space when he finds it. Barkley will mostly get the ball on the read option, but he's becoming more adept as a receiver with 20 catches this year compared to 16 in 2015. Since catching the ball out of the backfield allow Barkley more space to work with, offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead should be working to create more such opportunities in the future. That would also help prop up quarterback Trace McSorley's dreadful completion percentage.
Max: Iowa's strength this season has been their defense. How will they be able to stop the Penn State offense, and what players will be particularly big threats outside of Barkley?
Aaron: Slowing down the running game is the best way to attack Penn State since the passing game has been so inconsistent lately. When Barkley is bottled up, Penn State gets forced into 3rd-and-long situations that are tough to overcome when you complete so few of your passes. Instead, the Lions get most of their passing yards in big chunks when the defense is expecting a run. I expect Desmond King will play a key role in keeping Penn State from creating too many big plays through the air. When forced to throw, McSorley will target wide receiver Chris Godwin and tight end Mike Gesicki most often.
Max: Iowa's ground game has been good all year, and while the passing game hasn't been a strength for the majority of the season, it has shown signs of improvement. In what ways will Iowa's offense have success against this Penn State defense on Saturday?
Aaron: If Penn State plays as well in run defense as it has for the last three games, then it is going to be tough sledding for Iowa on offense. Purdue had some success moving the ball through the air against the Lions last week, especially in the first half, but that was coming from an offense that is accustomed to throwing the ball more than 40 times each week. Based on his recent performance, I'm not sure that C.J. Beathard is that type of player, but if Iowa has its way up front, we're not going to find out. The Hawkeyes' best chance at success is still through the running game, where they have had the most success this year, but if it's not working and they stick with it, it's going to be a long night.
Max: Alright, prediction time. Will Iowa get back to its winning ways against the Nittany Lions, or will Penn State continue their winning streak over Iowa?
Aaron: I think this one will be close with both teams having trouble moving the ball. Penn State will come up with one more big play to pull out the win at home, 21-20.
Thanks to Aaron for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw six hundred points on your team. For more on Penn State football, check out Black Shoe Diaries and follow them on Twitter at @BSDTweet. And as always, go Hawks.