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Conversations With the Enemy: Talking Penn State with Run Up The Score

Hello again.  I traded a few questions about Saturday's EPIC rivalry game with Run Up The Score from Black Shoe Diaries, SBN's leviathan Penn State blog.  My answers to his questions should be up at BSD shortly.

Below, I'm in bold.

MSU-PSU: great rivalry or greatest rivalry?

Greatest, of course!  How else could you explain two teams fighting over a pre-school arts and crafts monstrosity like the Land Grant Trophy?

Penn State allowed almost 300 yards passing against Indiana last Saturday; that statistic alone gives MSU fans at least some hope, as our offense is essentially pass-or-bust this year.  How has PSU's pass defense been this season?  Are there any clear vulnerabilities in the secondary?

Keep in mind that Indiana threw the ball 51 times and was playing from behind in the second half last week, but yes, the larger point is that teams know it's better to throw on Penn State than attempt to run.  I would not be remotely surprised if MSU attempts close to 50 passes on Saturday, although I doubt they'll reach the 61 passes thrown by Brian Hoyer against PSU back in 2006 -- and that was in a 17-13 game.  Penn State can be thrown on, but they do their best to protect any obvious liabilities in the secondary.  Free Safety Nick Sukay has steadily improved throughout the year.  Drew Astorino (#28) plays the other safety position, and it's no secret that he's trying to fight through a shoulder injury.  CB A.J. Wallace sustained a concussion last week, he's listed as "possible" for Sparty.  So there may be opportunities for you in the passing game.

[More, after the jump.]

PSU leads the conference in sacks.  Does the pressure come primarily from the defensive line, or will the Lions regularly mix in blitz packages?

Penn State loves to just send the defensive line if they can get away with it.  The defensive scheme actually depends on it, but PSU's defensive ends have been several notches below their predecessors.  There's no Aaron Maybin, Maurice Evans, or Tamba Hali on this defensive line, so they'll send linebackers on occasion, and maybe mix in a corner blitz once or twice per game, but that's it.

The book on Darryl Clark seems to be that he's fantastic if given time, but quickly becomes very average if he's subjected to pressure.  Is that mostly correct?  What are his major strengths and weaknesses?

He's like about any other good, but not great, quarterback.  If he has a clean pocket and can set his feet, he's as good as anyone in the country.  If he gets hit too much, he gets rattled and starts making bad decisions with the ball.  In that sense, he can be knocked back into looking like a talented quarterback in his second or third start -- he thinks he can make throws that he can't actually pull off.

Can you tell us a bit about PSU's receivers and tight ends?  Our pass defense has been atrocious, and Andrew Quarless, in particular, worries me greatly.

Starting WR Chaz Powell is out for the game with a shoulder injury.  In his place, you'll see a rotating group including the very tall Brett Brackett and the very quick Curtis Drake.  Maybe true freshman Justin Brown gets in the game, but I doubt it.  Graham Zug had a nightmare game against Indiana last week, but that was mostly due to fumbling punts.  He runs good routes and gets open against passive zone coverages.  Really, that goes for the whole group -- if you can press and bump them, they become ineffective quickly.  

As for Quarless, he has all the talent in the world but had squandered it until this season with various off-field issues. He scares a lot of teams, although he's only broken 50 yards receiving once this year, due to a 60 yard touchdown catch against Michigan. Derek Moye is probably our best receiver, but he was totally shut out by Ohio State's press coverage and only had two catches for 28 yards against Indiana.  Because of that, I suspect PSU will make an effort to get him involved quickly.

Special teams have seemed to be a major problem all season long for PSU.  Have things improved at all in recent weeks?  If not, which areas are the most dire?  (Happily enough, MSU's special teams have been mostly fantastic all season long.)

Improved?  No, no.  It's a worsening nightmare by the week.  Penn State is 113th in kickoff returns, 107th in punt returns, 114th in net punting, 57th in kickoff coverage, and 117th in punt return yardage allowed.  On top of that, our punt returners (Zug and Astorino) went from being Designated Fair Catchers to dropping everything in sight last week.  So relatively speaking, we're downright awesome in covering kickoffs.  In our two losses, the game turned on a blocked punt for a touchdown against Iowa and a punt return inside the 10 yard line by Ohio State's Ray Small.

Is there anyone on offense or defense for PSU that MSU fans probably haven't heard of, but that we should keep an eye on?

Curtis Drake is a good candidate on offense.  He's a true freshman receiver, and is extremely elusive with the ball in his hands.  Last week, PSU's offense was jumpstarted by a long gainer on an end-around by Drake.  Defensively, freshman Stephon Morris has seen a lot of time in Penn State's nickel package and has played well beyond anyone's expectations.  Given Michigan State's propensity to throw the ball, you'll see a lot of him Saturday.

Finally, generally speaking, how are you feeling about the game?

Justifiably nervous.  I don't like hearing that Michigan State excels on special teams -- that's a huge point that can't be overlooked.  Penn State tends to start slowly, especially on the road, and that seems to be an especially bad idea this week with a possible BCS at-large bid on the line.  Michigan State will be plenty motivated, given the beating they received last year at Beaver Stadium and Mark Dantonio's pissy-pants antics of calling two defensive timeouts during the waning seconds of the game in sub-freezing temperatures.  And every Penn State fan is expecting a minimum of two special teams disasters.

Thanks to RUTS, and I wish his team only the absolute worst luck this Saturday.