Having finished off an undermanned Richmond squad, the Hoos look to continue their success against a Big Ten opponent. Penn State is also undermanned, the result of NCAA sanctions limiting the team to just 65 scholarships a year for the next 4 years.
While Penn State lost just a handful of established players due to the sanctions, their depth was severely hampered. This became clear last week, when the Nittany Lions lost at home to Ohio in a game that they led 14-3 at halftime. These issues are exacerbated by the new coaching staff and new systems that the players have to learn. As the season goes on, these problems will begin to rectify themselves as the players become accustomed to the new schemes and the younger players get up to speed.
All of that is a very long-winded way of saying that I'm happy to be playing Penn State early this season, because I expect them to get better as the season goes on.
Of course, I also expect the Hoos to get better as the season goes on. Nine true freshmen played last week, and while some of them played only a few snaps on special teams, others are expected to be contributors this season. Guys like Eli Harold and Maurice Canady are only going to get better as the season progresses.
So, the Hoos are 1-0 and the Nittany Lions are 0-1. The Hoos are at home, and are favored by 10 points. Should we be confident in a win?
Virginia on Offense
Penn State's defense returns much of last year's 20th ranked defense. However, former Defensive Coordinator Tom Bradley resigned in January, and former Duke head coach Ted Roof was hired to lead the new defense. Roof was previously Auburn's defensive coordinator, but had resigned before the bowl game to take the same position at UCF, which he held for just over a month. They also lost the 2011 Big Ten Defensive Player of the year, DT Devon Still, to graduation.
One thing that won't change much is the defensive scheme. It will still be pretty basic 4-3, with dominant DTs and big, fast LBs. A lot of 4-3 teams generate pass rush mostly from the DEs, but Penn State has long had pass rushers at the DT positions. This year will be no different, as senior Jordan Hill will be asked to step into Still's shoes as the leader of the DL. Hill, 6'2" 292 LBs, was nearly as good as Still last year, finishing with 3.5 sacks and 8 TFLs (Still had 17 TFLs and 4.5 sacks). Next to Hill will be junior DaQuan Jones (6'3" 324). Senior James Terry (6'3" 316) will also see snaps next to Hill. Jones and Terry aren't the pass rushers that Hill is, and are used mostly in support of Hill. They are both big bodies, and will take up blockers while Hill pushes into the backfield. When Hill comes off the field, the drop off is large, as sophomore Kyle Baublitz (6'5" 287) is still learning how to play DT after playing LB and TE in High School.
All 3 LBs from a year ago return, and all 3 can play. Senior OLB Michael Mauti tore his ACL last September, but is back to 100% and led the team with 12 tackles against Ohio. The other OLB is fellow senior Gerald Hodges. Hodges moved from the weak side to the strong side in the spring, with Mauti out, and this year the two seniors will switch back and forth. In the middle is junior Glenn Carson.
All 3 LBs are similar in stature, about 6'2" and 235 lbs and all are fast, running in the 4.5-4.6 range. Hodges is a former safety, and is probably the quickest of the 3. He led the team in tackles last year, and is also a good cover guy. Hodges may well be on Perry Jones duty a lot. Mauti was one of the top prospects in the nation in 2009, but has suffered two season ending knee injuries already. Still, he's a very good run stopper and can handle flat zones. . Carson is the least heralded of the LBs, but he's also probably the steadiest performer. He isn't going to blow anybody away with his play, but he'll always be in the right place, and he will make the tackle when he's there.
The Penn State secondary, much like the Virginia secondary, is very thin on experience. Penn State actually lost all 4 starters from a year ago, and returned only 2 players with any real playing experience. The leader of the group is senior Stephon Morris (5'8" 188), who has 13 career starts, including 2 last year. The other CB is sophomore Adrian Amos (6'0" 205), who played in every game last year as a true freshman and was 3rd on the team in tackles last week. Both players are talented, but obviously lacking in experience. Neither looked great last week.
The safeties are two seniors, Malcolm Willis and Jake Fagnano. Junior Stephen Obeng-Agyapong will also see time there, and is likely the nickel back in passing situations. Willis is the better cover guy, while Fagnano is better at stepping up in run support. Again, none of the 3 looked great this past week.
Ohio rushed for 175 yards and threw for 324 against a defense that finished last season ranked 20th overall, 42nd against the rush and 6th against the pass. They were 26th in the nation in sacks last year, and they recorded 1 last week, by reserve DE Deion Barnes. They recorded 26 turnovers last year (in 13 games) and didn't record one last week. Suffice it to say, last week was out of the norm. The question is, can they right the ship? Can this defense become what it has been over most of past 30 years?
Despite the 175 yards rushing, Ohio was actually under 4 yards per carry. If the Hoos can run the ball 47 times, as the Bobcats did, it will be because they are comfortably ahead. The 324 yards passing is more concerning for the Nittany Lions defense. Ohio QB Tyler Tettleton is more mobile than Michael Rocco, but he isn't a better passer. And Virginia's receivers are much more talented than Ohio's are. If the Penn State defense isn't able to generate more pass rush than they did against Ohio, and isn't able to cover our WRs, Michael Rocco should have another big game.
I still expect the Hoos to use the run to open up the passing game. The offensive line wasn't great last week, but they weren't bad. A better performance will be needed, because Penn State's DL is much better than Richmond's. If Penn State is able to shut down our running game with just the DL, Rocco is going to have a tough time.
Virginia on Defense
While the Penn State defense should be embarrassed about giving up 500 yards to Ohio, their offense struggled as well. The difference is, their offensive struggles weren't a surprise. Last year, PSU's offense was 95th in the nation, and 110th in scoring. And that offense had one of the top backs in the nation in Silas Redd. Redd has transferred to USC, leaving the Nittany Lions' offense looking for playmakers.
Replacing Redd in the backfield is Bill Belton, a 5'10" 202 lb sophomore. Last year, Belton played WR and took a number of snaps as a wildcat QB. Look for that formation to be a possibility in this game, as PSU looks for ways to make plays offensively. Obviously, for a former WR, Belton is also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Belton is a quality back, with good speed and outstanding open field skills. Still, he's no Silas Redd. Belton's backup is Derek Day, who is similar to Belton, but not as talented. Day and Belton basically split carries against Ohio, but neither was particularly effective.
The QB for the Lions offense is senior Matt McGloin. McGloin is a game manager type, somewhat similar to Rocco. He doesn't wow anybody with his athleticism or skills, but he makes good solid decisions. Last week, he set career highs in just about every passing metric, completing 27/48 for 260 yards and 2 TDs and 1 INT. The 56% completion rate isn't very good, but is about on par with his 54% completion percentage last season. He also had an 8:5 TD:INT ratio, which isn't very good. Last year, McGloin shared snaps with dual threat QB Rob Bolden, but Bolden transferred (to LSU), taking a big weapon away from the Lions' offense. The other QB we may see is sophomore Paul Jones. Jones hasn't played a single play yet in his career, but at 6'5" 250 lbs and with a canon arm, he has a much higher ceiling than McGloin. McGloin played pretty well last week, so barring injury, I doubt we see Jones. But if there is any garbage time snaps to be had, Jones may get in.
Perhaps one of the reasons for PSU's offensive struggles last week is related to the fact that they lost their top 7 pass catchers from last year. The top returning receiver is junior Shawney Kersey, who had all of 5 catches for 108 yards last year. That is an impressive 21.6 yards per catch, and Kersey will start at one WR spot. At 6'1", 197 pounds, and with very good vertical speed, Kersey is a big play threat. PSU actually lists 3 starting WR positions. They also list a FB and a TE, which means they list 12 starters on offense. The FB is senior Michael Zordich, who is a solid blocker but isn't much of a threat in the passing or rushing game. He did have 1 carry for 3 yards against Ohio.
The other two starting WRs are sophomores Allen Robinson and Alex Kenney. Robinson, at 6'3" 201, is the possession guy. Robinson is a big leaper, so watch for him on jump balls around the endzone. Kenney is the fastest of the group, and at 6'0" 192, is still strong enough to go over the middle. Kenney is the type of guy who will take a quick toss and turn it into a big play.
Those 3 WRs combined for 16 catches and 153 yards last week, but the longest play was a 21 yard catch from Robinson. We'll need to a similar job of avoiding the big play if we're going to be successful. The big WRs present a challenge to our smaller DBs. Keeping everything in front of them and making sure tackles is going to be very important.
One other weapon PSU has is redshirt freshman TE Kyle Carter. While not listed as the starter at TE, Carter was the 2nd leading receiver last week, with 6 catches for 74 yards. Senior Garry Gilliam is listed as the starter, but he is more of a blocking TE. Carter is actually listed third, with true freshman Jesse James listed 2nd. James is a bit like Jake McGee, in that he is still developing the size and strength as a blocker, but has good speed for a 6'7" 250 pound guy. Carter is the biggest weapon of the 3, due to his speed and ability to get open. With the safeties focused on the WRs, LaRoy Reynolds will have to keep an eye on Carter.
The OL is led by 5th year senior C Matt Stankiewitch. Next to Stankiewitch are sophomore Miles Dieffenbach at LG and junior John Urschel on the right. The OTs are senior Mike Farrell on the right and redshirt freshman Donovan Smith at LT. This is the same unit that started last week, and struggled to consistently open up holes for the RBs. Smith was one of the top OTs in the nation coming out of HS in 2011, but he's untested at LT. That could provide a good matchup for our young DEs Eli Harold and Mike Moore, who are also still getting their feet wet in college football.
The OL as a unit averages 6'4" and 306 pounds. That isn't much bigger than Richmond's front 5, but this unit is more mobile than Richmond's. Richmond struggled to get anything going on the ground against the Virginia defense, finishing with just 28 yards on 21 carries. I expect Penn State to use a similar offensive gameplan to Richmond's. This will consist of short, quick passes, designed to get the ball out before the DL can pressure the QB. This allows the talented WRs to make some plays against a young, small, inexperience secondary. The running game will come off of that, and will probably be focused largely on the edges, trying to use Belton's quickness.
If our secondary is able to keep things in front of them and avoid the big play, we should be ok. Getting some pressure on McGloin would also be great, because he has a tendency to throw interceptions. Demetrious Nicholson is going to be a very important factor in this game, because he is our best DB.
Many fans will remember when an undermanned 2001 Virginia team defeated Penn State 20-14 in Charlottesville, keeping PSU from going bowling. This year, the tables are turned a bit, as Penn State is the team with a new coach and Virginia is the more talented team. We still have the home-field advantage, and we obviously looked better last week.
So I go back to the question I asked at the beginning. How confident should we be?
Penn State is still a proud program. They are going through some turmoil, and are in the beginning of a rebuilding process under a new coaching staff. Their defense should still be solid, although they got torched by Ohio. Our offense is certainly capable of a similar performance. Penn State's offense is a mess right now, playing without some of their top playmakers. Then again, last year their offense struggled, and they had all those playmakers.
I can't see Penn State playing as poorly as they did last week. But, I also think we are capable of playing better than we did last week. We have more talent, we have more depth, and we are at home. I think that is enough to pull out a win and a cover.
Prediction: Hoos 34, Nittany Lions 23