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The Only Questions: Q&A with Penn State

Michigan State is back home after a tough road trip against Northwestern

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State fans had their metaphorical hearts crushed last weekend when their guys left Evanston, Illinois empty handed. It was a triple over time thriller where the Wildcats were able to come out on top in a 39-31 victory.

The Spartans continued to fight until the finals minutes where they managed to claw their way back just before regulation was over. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough.

It was a tough loss but there’s no time to dwell on the past guys. We have to constantly move forward because the Nittany Lions are headed to East Lansing.

We have Aaron Yorke with us this week from the Black Shoe Diaries, the best Penn State community out there. So if you haven’t read their stuff click the link! With that let’s get right into it as Aaron runs us through his thoughts on the battle for the Land Grant Trophy.

Back in 2015 (during James Franklin's second season as head coach) the Nittany Lions finished 7-6 (4-4 B1G). Since then Penn State's record under Coach Franklin has been 18-4. What has been the formula for such a huge turn around?

The formula has been an aggressive passing game led by offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and quarterback Trace McSorley. Moorhead was hired and McSorley took over as starter before the 2016 campaign, and while both took a little while to get acclimated, the results have been beyond what even the most optimistic Penn State fans expected. It also helps that the Lions have seen Saquon Barkley develop into one of the most dangerous playmakers in the game during Moorhead's tenure.

In Franklin's first two years as Penn State head coach, quarterback Christian Hackenberg had trouble moving the chains behind an inexperienced offensive line, and former offensive coordinator John Donovan's more conservative passing attack failed to mesh with the signal caller. Moorhead and McSorley have worked together much better during their two years together, and when you add in a defense that has developed into one of the nation's best under defensive coordinator Brent Pry, you've got a team that is capable of winning the Big Ten.

Walk me through Penn State's most recent let down against Ohio State. They were ahead 18 points in the first half (28-10) and then scored the final points of the third quarter giving them a 35-20 lead. What led to Ohio State coming back and winning this ball game? What if anything could Penn State have done differently to change the outcome?

Penn State gained an early lead with big plays on special teams and in the passing game. Meanwhile, Ohio State did a great job hanging around with J.T. Barrett and some great offensive line play. When the big plays dried up for the Lions, the defense failed to pick up the slack, allowing Barrett to get comfortable in the pocket and pick apart the secondary. Penn State still had a chance to run out the clock late in the game, but Ohio State's defensive front proved too much for the offensive line, and the Buckeyes tackled Saquon Barkley before he could reach the open field.

I'm not sure what else Penn State could have done differently. The Lions got the big plays they needed and won the turnover battle. It just turned out that Ohio State was the better team in the trenches and at quarterback. Barrett found his targets when Penn State blitzed and also when it dropped into coverage. I think the Lions could have been more aggressive with a one-score lead late in the fourth quarter, but they were stopped just as well by the Buckeyes when they got the ball back down by a point in the two-minute drill. Ohio State just had all the answers in the final period.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

What does the rest of this season look like? How does Penn State put themselves back in the Top 4 in terms of making the playoffs?

After facing Michigan State in East Lansing this weekend, Penn State plays Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland during the final three weeks of the regular season. That's not exactly a murderer's row, so there's a decent chance for the Lions to finish league play with just a single loss. The biggest obstacle between Penn State and the Playoff is the very talented teams ranked one through six in the initial rankings. Penn State is going to need some help, so expect the scoreboard watching to get intense if the Lions go up by two scores on Saturday.

Does Saquon Barkley win the Heisman this year? Why or why not?

I don't think he will, because he only has one more chance to show off against a ranked opponent. Meanwhile, guys like Barrett and Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield have already come up big in major wins this year. Even in his team's one loss this year, Mayfield was excellent, completing over 70 percent of his throws with two touchdowns and no interceptions while also rushing for 57 yards against what is proving to be a very solid Iowa State team. In Penn State's loss to Ohio State, Barkley returned a kick for a touchdown and did very little afterwards. The tailback is going to need a few majors performances down the stretch to make up for what happened in Columbus, and I don't see one happening against Michigan State's stingy run defense.

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Who is more important to this offense? Trace McSorely? or Barkley?

Not all fans realize it, but McSorley is the most important player to the offense. He's a big part of not just the passing game, but also the running game, as he constantly has to decide whether to keep the ball or hand it to Barkley on options plays. When he calls his own number, McSorley has been great at finding holes and picking up big chunks of yardage. That's how he scored three rushing touchdowns in Penn State's big win over Michigan two weeks ago. In the passing game, McSorley has improved his accuracy and decision making, so even though the dazzling big plays aren't coming as frequently as last year, the Penn State offense has become more efficient and consistent.

Who will Penn State's X-factor on defense be?

Defensive end Shaka Toney will be the X-factor on defense. After sacking the quarterback three times in two games against Northwestern and Michigan, Toney came up empty at Ohio State. With Ryan Buchholz suffering an injury during the game in Colubmus, Toney will probably see a bump in playing time, and he'll be key in putting pressure on Brian Lewerke and the surging Michigan State passing attack.

Indiana v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

What's the matchup you will be watching closely?

I'm curious to see how Joe Bachie and the Michigan State linebackers handle Barkley in the passing game. Moorhead loves getting his star tailback the ball through the air, but Barkley was held to just 23 yards on four receptions against Ohio State. In five games this year, Barkley has a single reception that went longer than 23 yards. Look for McSorley to once again target the Heisman candidate deep down the field if he's able to find the right matchup in man coverage.

Prediction time: Final score? Who wins? Why?

I have Penn State winning 31-13. McSorley has shown that he's capable of getting Penn State in the end zone even when Barkley isn't at his best, so I think the quarterback will play a big role in overcoming Michigan State's defense. On the other side of the ball, the Spartans have had a little trouble running the ball this year, so I think a lot of the load will fall on Lewerke's shoulders. He's been improving as the season progresses, but I have a hard time seeing him torch the Lions like Barrett just did.

Thanks to Aaron and everyone over at Black Shoe Diaries for putting another fantastic Q&A together with us. For more on the game this weekend read their Q&A as well.

Go Green!