Saturday, October 10, 2015
12:00PM (Eastern), ESPN2
Penn State: Saquon Barkley (RB): Questionable (Ankle)
Akeel Lynch (RB): Questionable (Knee)
Marcus Allen (DB): Questionable (Arm)
Andrew Nelson (OT): Unlikely to play (Knee)
Indiana: Jordan Howard (RB): Questionable (Ankle)
Nate Sudfeld (QB): Likely to play (Ankle)
Before barely losing to Ohio State last Saturday, Indiana had built their first 4-0 start since 1990 on a great offense, led by a solid offensive line and the relentless rushing of their bruising tailback, Jordan Howard. If you watch Big Ten football, then you remember Tevin Coleman, last year’s starter. Well, Howard is the anti-Tevin. Where Tevin was a small, darting running back who caught passes out of the backfield a la Brian Westbrook, Howard is a big, hard-charging 230 pound monster. His yardage only increases throughout the course of a game, as defenders get tired of dragging his hulking frame to the turf.
Nate Sudfeld is a good quarterback, and with Howard keeping defenses honest he has gotten off to a great statistical start this season. He has racked up 1277 yards in just over 4 ½ games, averaging 8.69 yards per attempt with seven passing touchdowns and just one interception. After he was injured in the third quarter of last week’s Ohio State game, backup QB Zander Diamont came in with a completely different style of play. Diamont is a scrambling quarterback, and he actually has more yards rushing than passing this season (98/76).
Just as Penn State has struggled to find a consistent rhythm and identity on offense, the Hoosiers have been hit-or-miss on defense. Indiana's defense opened their season with a horrendous game against Southern Illinois, where they gave up 659 yards and 47 points against an FCS opponent. Since then, the defense has seen some improvement, particularly with regard to forcing turnovers. The Hoosiers have 5 interceptions on the year, and have recovered 6 fumbles. However, their opponents still average over 32 points per game.
Penn State is bringing a 4-1 record into this game, but hasn’t been a season to be proud of so far. Penn State has looked capable of losing every game it’s played, but keeps limping along thanks to its staunch defense and just enough of offense to squeak by. Carl Nassib has blossomed from a scrawny walk-on into a force to be reckoned with, and his 8 sacks are second in the nation coming into this game. With surprising depth in the secondary and a typical PSU rotation of steady linebackers, Penn State is a difficult team to blow out. In the first five weeks, their oppponents have scored an average of just 15.8 points per game while giving up 3 intereptions and 8 fumbles. Unlike Indiana, Penn State’s offense is less able to convert those turnovers into touchdowns and they average just over 24 points per game.
The big question this week will be whether Barkley and/or Lynch will be healthy enough to play. Barkley provides the greatest punch with his rare blend of size, balance, vision and power. Lynch, however, is a complete running back who provides an extra option in the passing game and is a significant upgrade over Mark Allen, the next player on the depth chart. With Barkley and Lynch both out last week, the offense struggled. If Penn State is going to have a shot against Indiana and its potent offense, it will need at least one of its top two tailbacks on the field.
Another storyline we’ve been keeping an eye on here is the evolution (or lack thereof) of Penn State’s coaching. Although Franklin and Donovan preach situational football and had success using a versatile pro-style attack at Vanderbilt, there has been a pronounced tendency toward Tressel Ball (blasphemy!) here in the Valley. Fans, former players, and even Hackenberg all seem frustrated in varying degrees with the uber-conservative play calling and lack of a vertical passing attack.
Jason Cabinda vs. Jordan Howard: As the middle linebacker in Bob Shoops 4-3 defense, Jason Cabinda is responsible for containing Jordan Howard anytime he breaks through the line of scrimmage on an inside run. Cabinda is a big guy and a sure tackler, which had better be against a workhorse like Howard. Expect him to rack up tackles, but more importantly watch as the game goes on to see whether Cabinda wears down and additional safety help is needed to keep Howard in check.
Jordan Howard: This guy is a punishing runner, and Penn State’s defense will have its hands full dealing with him without giving up too much yardage through the air.
Carl Nassib: Nassib is on this list just about every week, and with good reason. He’s a difference maker in every game, and more than that, he’s just flat-out fun to watch. Generating a strong four-man rush will be critical in this game. Sudfeld is too good of a quarterback to be bringing corners or safeties in on blitzes, and Penn State will need its linebackers to contain Howard with gang tackles.
Saquon Barkley (if he plays): Barkley is Penn State’s great hope in this game. Nothing so far seems to suggest that the Nittany Lions’ offensive line can sustain blocks long enough for their receivers to get open downfield. Barkley has been our greatest big-play threat so far, and maintaining a high time of possession will be critical to keep Indiana’s high-scoring offense off the field.
Indiana 31, Penn State 20