Can Penn State throw on Georgia's No. 1 ranked pass defense?

Dr. Saturday

TaxSlayer Bowl
Penn State (7-5) vs. Georgia (9-3)
Jacksonville, Florida
Jan. 2, 2016

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) slaps hands by head coach James Franklin during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg (14) slaps hands by head coach James Franklin during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Northwestern in Evanston, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

On the surface, Georgia and Penn State are fairly similar football teams. Good on defense, inconsistent on offense and in the midst of some coaching turnover.

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Well in Georgia’s case, there’s a lot of coaching turnover.

The school’s decision makers decided to move on from Mark Richt (who’s now at Miami, his alma mater) after his 15th season, despite a 9-3 record. The Bulldogs have been good, but not great for too long for the UGA administration, so Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is on his way in as the new head coach once the Tide’s College Football Playoff reaches a conclusion.

In the mean time, receivers coach Bryan McClendon has assumed the interim head coach tag with several other assistants – including offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator – moving on and not coaching in the bowl game.

Penn State’s coaching turnover is nowhere near as drastic. The Nittany Lions struggled offensively, averaging 23.7 points (101st nationally) and 344 yards (106th) per game, and decided to move on from offensive coordinator John Donovan. Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead was hired by head coach James Franklin to fill that void, but quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne will run the unit against Georgia.

The Nittany Lions are led by junior quarterback Christian Hackenberg, an NFL draft prospect who could be playing in his final game. Hackenberg (2,386 yards, 16 TDs) has shown flashes of brilliance at times, but he has taken a beating behind a lackluster offensive line the past two seasons. His interception total dropped dramatically from 15 last year to only five this year, but his completion percentage was just 53.3 percent and he was sacked 39 times.

Hackenberg faces a tough challenge against UGA, which boasts the nation’s best pass defense, allowing only 146.1 yards per game through the air. Instead, the Bulldogs will likely see a heavy dose of stud freshman running back Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1,007 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing several games with an ankle injury and receiving one carry in the opener. 

Georgia running back Sony Michel. (AP Photo/Brett Davis)
Georgia running back Sony Michel. (AP Photo/Brett Davis)

Like Penn State, Georgia’s passing game has been inconsistent, but the offense received a boost from a young running back. Greyson Lambert, a graduate transfer from Virginia, has been the starter at quarterback, but McClendon hinted recently that backup Brice Ramsey could also see some playing time in this one.

Speedy sophomore running back Sony Michel assumed the lead back duties after star Nick Chubb went down with a knee injury. Michel led the Bulldogs with 1,076 yards and seven scores and was third on the team with 25 catches for 270 yards.

Michel and company will deal with Penn State’s 14th-ranked defense, led by Lombardi Award winner Carl Nassib and defensive tackle Austin Johnson (70 tackes, 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks). PSU leads the nation with 44 sacks. Nassib, who barely saw the field in PSU’s final two games due to an undisclosed injury, had 15.5 of those sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. He’s expected to be at full strength for this one.

Penn State lost its final three games after a 7-2 start, so a win could send the Nittany Lions into the offseason on a positive note. Georgia is riding a four-game winning streak and would reach 10 wins for the fourth time in five years with a win over PSU.


Graham: There hasn't been a lot of coaching stability during the bowl practices for Georgia, so it’s tough to feel confident about the Bulldogs, especially against a really good Penn State defense. Gonna pick the Nittany Lions in spite of James Franklin’s poor coaching decisions. Penn State 21, Georgia 17.

Nick: Penn State vs. Georgia! Should be a great... oh, Georgia has a shell of a coaching staff and Penn State has struggled offensively at times in 2015. I think the Nittany Lions win this one. Penn State 23, Georgia 16.

Sam: I don't see a lot of points here. PSU's offensive line is just bad, though Barkley has shown an ability to create something out of nothing. Ultimately, Georgia's athletes on defense will be too much for PSU to handle. Georgia 20, Penn State 16.

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Sam Cooper is a contributor for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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