Behind Enemy Lines

Tom Kakert, Publisher
Hawkeye Report

Last year the Nittany Lions dominated the Hawkeyes in Happy Valley. This year the contest between the two schools will be at Kinnick Stadium at night. We go Behind Enemy Lines with Nate Bauer from to get a closer look at the high powered Penn State attack.

1. Quite a bit has changed for the Penn State program since one year ago at this time. Last year after four games, Penn State was sitting at 2-2 and then ran the table the rest of the regular season. Looking back at the last year, what have been the keys to the growth and improvement in the program?

BAUER: To the outside, and maybe to some extent even to those of us who are exclusively covering this program, the shift toward success would seem to be seismic and sudden. But honestly, if you’re looking at Penn State’s recent history, some of its struggles, and the first two years of James Franklin’s tenure, the growth and improvement was bubbling just under the surface throughout.

Certainly, no one would argue that the program he inherited was primed for immediate success. The offensive line was just abysmally depleted, the Lions’ defense had some players but really no depth, and the program’s quarterback was something of a misfit for what Franklin wanted to do. For two years, Penn State was just playing painfully unwatchable football, but through those bumps and essentially trying to keep its head above water, the depth, experience and restoring of talent that you see now was simultaneously taking place.

Combined with the exit of offensive coordinator John Donovan, offensive line coach Herb Hand and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, and an injection of some new blood to Franklin’s coaching staff in the form of line assistant Matt Limegrover, a promotion for Brent Pry to defensive coordinator, Tim Banks to the safeties, and not least of all offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, and the mismatched pieces suddenly found a fit. Even at 2-2 last season, there were signs of life as Penn State’s offense started to find its footing, and even though the Lions’ defense suffered through a huge rash of injuries for its veteran linebackers, there was a dividend in the form of gained experience for young, talented backups.

Depleted, they go out to a top-five Michigan team and get waxed, only to return to Beaver Stadium and come oh-so-close to losing to Minnesota. But, they didn’t lose. Quarterback Trace McSorley found some fourth quarter mojo, and a bottled-up Saquon Barkley burst free for his longest run of the game in overtime, 25 yards to end it. And really, the process just built from there; not a simple, overnight lightswitch turning on but rather a series of games that saw Penn State win in a variety of ways - upsetting Ohio State on a crazy blocked field goal, scoop and score, dominating at Purdue and against Iowa, producing a comeback at Indiana, doing the same against Michigan State, and then again, and again, against Wisconsin and in the wild loss to Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl.

When all of those elements are combined over time - learning how to win in different ways, overcoming some in-game adversity, moving beyond personnel challenges, experiencing an overall program maturation - I think you see a Penn State program this year that is really the product of all of them.

2. Penn State showed a quick strike offense last season, led by QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley. Has that continued this year, how has the offense improved this season and who are the other players to watch on the offensive side of the ball?

BAUER: Here’s a statistic for you: Penn State has 1,407 total offensive yards this season. It also has 40 total explosive plays (10+ yards run, 15+ yards passing). On those 40 explosive plays, the Lions have accumulated 1,054 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s 75 percent of Penn State’s total offensive yardage production coming via 40 plays, out of 170 plays run from scrimmage. I don’t really have anything to compare it to, but my inclination is to believe those numbers really tell directly the story of who and what this Penn State offense is.

It’s absolutely an indication of an explosive offense, but it’s also a real insight into Penn State’s strategy. They’re not really worried about third-down conversion rates (No. 92 nationally) or time of possession (No. 125). They simply want to force defenses to make a choice to stop something they’re doing, and then exploit the weakness or soft point that accompanies that defensive choice.

McSorley is the key to making all of that work. The offensive line has been better, though there is still some argument that it has room to grow as well, but when it comes to Penn State having that success offensively it’s all keyed in on McSorley making the right decisions with the ball and then making the play. That means getting the ball to Barkley in space, or keeping it himself when the defense overcommits to Barkley, or hitting his receivers when they’re finding themselves in man-to-man coverage.

The receivers’ numbers this year are another indication of that as tight end Mike Gesicki leads with 12 catches for 123 yards and four scores, followed by Barkley’s 11 catches for 241 yards and two scores. DaeSean Hamilton is the first true receiver on that list, and he’s at nine catches, followed by Juwan Johnson (seven), DeAndre Thompkins (six), Saeed Blacknall (three), and Brandon Polk (three). No doubt, Penn State feels like Gesicki presents plenty of matchup problems for opponents, as does Barkley, but the relatively wide distribution of catches for the rest of the team suggests that there’s ample confidence throughout the unit to make the play when presented with the opportunity.

3. The Penn State defense has been dominant so far this year, giving up just 14 total points and only one touchdown. What's been the key to their dominance in 2017 and who are the key players to watch?

BAUER: Oddly enough, Penn State fans might disagree with that assessment of dominance. Tackling and getting off the field on third downs has been something of a concerning trend for fans, but I’m in the camp that says it’s hard to argue with being the No. 2 scoring defense in the country through three games, No. 3 in turnovers gained, No. 9 in team sacks, No. 1 in team tackles for loss, even against opponents in Akron, Pitt and Georgia State that honestly just aren’t great.

Of those numbers, I really think turnovers gained and tackles for loss are the most closely tied to that dominance. And, for the record, turnovers gained was a pretty significant problem for Penn State last year in that the coaching staff felt the defense had a ton of opportunities for takeaways that were just missed for one reason or another. Through three games, the secondary has really been on the ball, with six passes intercepted (No. 5 nationally).

Likewise, tackles for loss are a huge way to swing or stop a possession in its tracks, particularly on first or second down. So, while I think allowing 36.4 percent of third-down conversions is something Penn State wants to clean up, they’re happy with the idea that they’re forcing so many at 55 on the season.

4. On the special teams front, Penn State has been good so far this year. What can you tell us about the kicking and return game?

BAUER: I actually thought kickoffs were somewhat suspect to start the season. They put two out of bounds in the first two games, but Tyler Davis turned it around last week against Georgia State and had good hang time and put most if not all of them in the end zone. Something to watch, though. He’s also 2 of 4 on field goal attempts so far, and I don’t think it’s a crisis or anything, but certainly, Penn State will want to find some more consistency there. Punting is rock solid with Blake Gillikin, who in many ways can be a game-changer with the frequency with which he can pin teams deep in their own territory.

The return game might be the most improved area for Penn State this year from last. The Lions averaged 6.47 yards per return last year with John Reid taking the primary responsibilities. This year, with Reid injured, DeAndre Thompkins has taken the role and has shined. As a team, they’re now No. 9 nationally for returns with a 17.92 average, and he personally is at No. 7 among returners with a 20.2 yards per return average and a touchdown on 10 attempts.

At kick return, Saquon Barkley has been handling those responsibilities as an opportunity to ensure another few touches per game for the team’s star. It’s been a bit of a mixed bag so far though as he’s averaging 26.8 yards per return - which is good enough for No. 24 nationally - but the staff feels like he can pop one and will pop one sooner rather than later.

Franklin spent the off-season saying resolutely the return game would be much better than its performances in any of the past three years, and three games in, he’s been correct.

5. So far this year, Penn State has outscored opponents 141-14. Has it been a surprise how strong they have been on both sides of the ball and can you gauge how much of it was a function of the opponents not being very strong?

BAUER: Akron hasn’t been good, Pitt got taken to the woodshed last week against Oklahoma State, and Georgia State lost its home opener to Tennessee State. All three programs have some players, so I don’t want to suggest that Penn State could sleepwalk through any of its match-ups, but I think the advantages in terms of depth of talent and options offensively, as well as the advantages for Penn State in the trenches, has maybe created a scoring disparity that hasn’t necessarily been an accurate reflection of who and what this team is.

The Nittany Lions are very good, no doubt, but there’s also no doubt that the path toward their goals is going to get considerably more difficult now that road games and Big Ten opponents are in the mix.

6. Looking at the match-up with Iowa, this will be Penn State's first road game. Any concerns on that front? How do you see this one playing out and what are the keys in the game?

BAUER: I think there’s always some intrigue every year in college football for every team when it hits the road for the first time simply because every year is in effect a new team. So certainly, Penn State isn’t immune from that, and given that all three of Penn State’s losses last season were away from Beaver Stadium, it lends some credence to the idea that challenges are ahead. In seven games away from Beaver Stadium last season, Penn State trailed or was tied at the half in five of them.

In that vein, I think maybe Penn State won’t come out guns blazing offensively, and if Iowa is able to really control the football and eat up some clock and take advantage by making sure it gets into the end zone, this could and likely will be close at halftime. The issue I see for Iowa is that my impressions and perspective of the program is that it’s not a system built for track meets. Teams that can score bunches of points are the ones that Penn State seems to typically struggle against, but even against good defenses, Penn State has produced 30+ points in each of its past 10 games.

Can Iowa eliminate or limit those quick-strike Penn State touchdowns? Can Iowa cash in on the opportunities it has when it reaches the red zone?

I’m always uncomfortable with “keys to the game” questions because just by nature of the job, I’m obviously much more familiar with Penn State than I am with its opponents. But, those are the questions that I think Iowa would need to answer affirmatively to win this game. Ultimately, given last year’s result and what I’ve seen of Penn State, my inclination is to think Penn State will be able to come out on the winning side of this one, though I’m definitely expecting a closer game in Iowa City.

Penn State 35

Iowa 20

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