After failing to stop their first test against the spread offense in 2013, the Penn State Nittany Lions hope for a better result in their second go-round.
The first test was a shocking 34-31 loss to UCF three weeks ago, and test number two features a road game in their Big Ten conference opener against the Indiana Hoosiers at noon on Big Ten Network on Saturday.
Penn State (3-1, 0-0 Big Ten) comes into the conference opener having extra time to prepare for the Hoosiers (2-2, 0-0 Big Ten) following a bye last week. The bye gave the Nittany Lions some valuable time to sort out a secondary that was victimized in the teams’ lone loss against UCF.
Members of the defense have barely acknowledged the loss that saw the Knights produce 507 total yards of offense, including 288 yards and a sparkling 74% completion percentage from UCF quarterback Blake Bortles throwing against the Penn State secondary.
The disappointment of that day was on the players’ minds for the past two weeks, even though a rain-soaked shutout of Kent State two weeks ago helped the defense get back on track.
“It’s always in the back of my mind – (the UCF game) but, at the same time, it’s not,” senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones told ESPN’s Josh Moyer this week. “We want to go out there and play our game the way it’s supposed to be played, Penn State-style.
The “Penn State-style” Jones refers to is obviously the hard-nosed and suffocating Nittany Lion defense fans have come to expect over the course of the past years, and not the one that fans witnessed UCF’s offense have their way with that night.
Waiting for the Nittany Lions in Bloomington is the Hoosiers’ fast-paced offense, which ranks 8th in the nation in passing yards (348.5 per game) and racks up 547.3 yards per game.
Hoosiers head coach Kevin Wilson brought the fast-paced offense with him when he took over the program in 2010, and has been piling up the points ever since. But the 28.7 points per game the team has averaged since the 2011 season hasn’t translated to many wins. Indiana is just 8-20 under Wilson.
Even with the Hoosiers improving to four wins last year after the 1-11 first season under Wilson, the program could dearly use a marquee win inside the conference against a big name like Penn State.
But if history has anything to say about it, this won’t be the week Wilson and the Hoosiers and get their marquee Big Ten win. Indiana has never beaten the Nittany Lions, going 0-16 against Penn State since they joined the Big Ten in 1993.
As for the Nittany Lions, stopping Indiana’s spread attack will be priority number one. After being torched by the FBS’ 22nd ranked passing team in UCF, the Penn State secondary will have to deal with stopping Indiana’s 8th ranked passing attack on Saturday.
Leading that attack is quarterback Nate Sudfeld, who is completing 65.3% of his passes in 2013 for 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns. The six-foot-four sophomore has thrown five interceptions, but three came in the teams’ loss to Missouri last week.
The Hoosiers boast a collection of receivers that average more than 14 yards per catch so far in 2013 and have scored 14 of the teams 24 offensive touchdowns. Tailback Tevin Coleman leads the Hoosier rushing attack with 386 yards on 56 carries and six touchdowns.
Slowing down Indiana’s offense will be easier for the Nittany Lions as linebacker Mike Hull is set to make his return to the lineup on Saturday. Hull, a senior, suffered a knee injury in the season-opening win against Syracuse and has played sparingly since.
While the Hoosiers’ 8th ranked offense against Penn State’s 11th ranked defense should provide the most intriguing matchup of the day, there’s no question where the advantage lies in Saturday’s matchup: Penn State’s offense against Indiana’s defense.
The Nittany Lion offense is among the top 50 FBS schools in both passing and rushing yardage, good for 461 total yards per game. The Indiana defense, meanwhile, is ranked 106th in the country surrendering 463.3 yards per game.
Penn State’s rushing attack average closes to 200 yards per game, and tailbacks Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch should have a field day running against a Hoosier defense allowing close to 250 yards per game on the ground.
Success in the running game for the Nittany Lions on Saturday should also open up the play-action passing game downfield for quarterback Christian Hackenberg and his top targets like receiver Allen Robinson (26 catches, 448 yards and three TD’s).
Kickoff at Memorial Stadium is at noon and the game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.