Today we are joined by Devon Edwards of Black Shoe Diaries who answered some questions for us.
1. Penn State has been a very inconsistent team this year. They beat Syracuse and Michigan, but they also lost big to Indiana and were destroyed by Ohio State? Why is this team so unpredictable?
Devon Edwards: Honestly, it's not a matter of Penn State being unpredictable, it's a matter of Penn State being entirely predictable. If you want to beat the Nittany Lions, spread them out defensively, challenge their corners and safeties and even linebackers to make plays in space, use the short passing game to take advantage of soft coverage, and run at Deion Barnes. If you want to lose, run the ball straight into the middle of the line 30 times and rely entirely too much on the deep passing game, so the line has enough time to get pressure (thanks, Michigan!). Penn State's offense has been pretty consistent, in process if not results--the running game has been solid, and takes a small boost with Bill Belton replacing Zach Zwinak, and the passing game is entirely dependent on whether Hackenberg will hit his wide open receivers or sail passes over their heads, and how many dumb freshman mistakes he'll make.
2. I've liked what I've seen from Christian Hackenberg. What are your thoughts on Hackenberg so far? Do you think his shoulder injury will have any effects on this game?
DE: Hack has played about as well as you could possibly ask from a true freshman who's still just 18 years old. He has the ability to make every throw, and, as he showed during that unbelievable drive in the last minute against Michigan, actually can make them when it counts. Watching him is a little frustrating, because he's a fairly average quarterback right now, but there are flashes of just absolute greatness--one minute he'll read the defense, feel the pressure, roll out, and throw a perfect back shoulder fade--and then reminders that he's still only played half a season above the high school level. You can't knock his poise, though, and for a teenager, he does a great job bouncing back after a poor series. I don't think his shoulder injury will be that much of an issue; he wasn't listed on the injury report and Bill O'Brien says he's a full go for Saturday.
3. Bill O'Brien seems committed to Penn State, but do you think there is a chance he would be swayed to leave if an NFL team came calling?
DE: I mean, there's a chance. If Bill Belichick retires after this season and the Patriots offer BOB a ridiculous amount of money, do I think he'd take it? Sure, maybe. But that's probably not going to happen, and he's a guy who turned down the NFL market after last season, when his stock was probably higher than it is now; after some of the losses this year, scholarship issues be damned, a sizable portion of the Penn State fanbase has criticized him for his playcalling and his leadership. But by all accounts, he loves Penn State, he loves the college game, and I can't imagine someone leading a school through the darkness and not wanting to be there when it comes out the other side.
4. What players should Illini fans look for on offense for Penn State? Defense?
DE: On offense, the short answer is Allen Robinson. The guy came out of nowhere to have an unbelievable 2012 season, and he's only topping it this year en route to solidifying his spot as the best Penn State wide receiver of all time. In five of his seven games this season, he has at least 7 catches, 129 yards, and a touchdown. He's Christian Hackenberg's best friend, a guy with incredible ball skills, great moves in the open field, and enough size and speed to get open almost every time in man coverage. I'll put it succinctly: You can not stop Allen Robinson, you can only hope to contain him. Defensively, the Lions' strength is up front: DT DaQuan Jones is a dynamic run stuffer who will eat up blockers and get pressure up the middle, to boot; C.J. Olaniyan is the best edge rusher, and terrorized Devin Gardner when we played Michigan. Also, look for safeties Ryan Keiser, Jesse Della Valle, and Malcolm Willis (two of whom at least started their careers as walk-ons), because if Bill Cubit is smart, that's who he'll be attacking all game long.
5. What makes a Lion a "Nittany" Lion? Seriously, what?
DE: I mean, I guess it's a cougar that lived on Mount Nittany, which is a few miles away from campus and makes for some great hiking. But I'll digress and tell the cool story of how Penn State's mascot got its name. We were playing Princeton, in baseball, back in 1904, and those Princetonians, even back then, were being all pretentious about how great Princeton was and how their tiger could kick any mascot's ass, so our captain was like, "Screw your tiger, we got a freaking lion" and then all those nerds were sufficiently embarrassed and then when they got back from the game, he started a campaign to actually make the lion our mascot, lest he be called out for his chicanery.
DE: I think we win, but something's telling me that this is going to be a less comfortable win than we'd prefer, since I'm very scared of an offense with a competent quarterback. But look, I just saw the Michigan State offense go off for 42 on you guys, and while we don't quite have their defense, we're pretty stout against the run, too, and they held you to 25 yards. I think Penn State mentally is in a better place than Illinois; we both got blown out last week, but I know these Nittany Lions are resilient and I can't say the same about Illinois. It's a matter of when Hackenberg settles in--he hasn't been great early in many games this season, so it's entirely possible that this is another slow start for our offense. Against Indiana, he never really got into a groove. If that happens again, we're in trouble. I'll say it's 37-24, with Penn State finally pulling away in the fourth quarter.
Thanks again to Devon for answering our questions.