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Getting To Know The Enemy: 5Qs About The Penn State Nittany Lions

Brian Bennett from Black Shoe Diaries joins us for a little Q&A

Rutgers v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Happy Thanksgiving Eve. And as MSU fans, I know many of us are giving thanks that this football season is just about over. On Friday night (I know that still triggers some of you that it is not on Saturday) at Ford Field in Detroit (again, apologies for the trigger), Michigan State will play its season finale against Penn State for the Land Grant Trophy. As always, let’s get some insider info. Here is Brian Bennett from Black Shoe Diaries to tell us about the team from Happy Valley

TOC: For the second straight year, it looks like the only losses on your schedule will be against Ohio State and um. (Yes, that is my lack of confidence in MSU’s football team on display right there.) What has been the biggest thing these last two seasons that has kept Penn State from beating those two teams? Does Nittany Nation believe James Franklin can get them over the hump?

BB: This was the hardest question for me to answer on a few different levels. Beginning with Franklin, there’s absolutely major frustration about Penn State having never broken through to be a playoff team in this four-team era. It very nearly happened in his third year, 2016, when Penn State caught fire in October and November to win the Big Ten title. They wound up fifth in the playoff committee’s poll and watched as Ohio State earned an at-large berth despite Penn State having beaten them head-to-head and winning the conference. There’s some alternate universe where the entire perception of Penn State/Franklin differs if the Lions go to the playoffs.

Instead, it’s been missed opportunity after missed opportunity, especially 2017 when losses at Ohio State and Michigan State by a combined four points kept a super talented Penn State team on the outside. Then, there’s this year that has maybe been the most frustrating of all. Some of those things that have cost Penn State against Ohio State/Michigan in the past were seemingly fixed - better depth, high upside at the quarterback position, more gamebreakers. But Penn State’s offense looked lost in the two losses to the rivals above them. Against Ohio State, it was as simple as the Buckeyes having Marvin Harrison, Jr. and Penn State having a wide receiver room that simply struggled to get open against OSU’s secondary - and UM’s too. Ultimately, those offensive shortcomings cost coordinator Mike Yurcich his job. So, it’s fair to say that Franklin is just as frustrated with falling short as the fanbase.

At the end of the day, I do think that James Franklin needs some defending. If Penn State wins on Friday, it would be his fifth 10-win regular season in his decade as the program’s head coach. That’s pretty amazing consistency and would be welcomed by 90 percent of other programs in the country. The program is recruiting at a high level and the overall talent in the program is at its best since the 1990s when the Lions had a similar run of success. No program would have benefited more from an expanded playoff as Penn State has spent the better part of 10 years hovering around the 6-12 mark in the polls. Nebraska firing Bo Pelini is the cautionary tale for Big Ten fan bases when it comes to moving on from a good coach. Running Franklin out would seem to be that on steroids.

TOC: Your QB Drew Allar got injured in the last game. What is going on with that injury? Will he play Friday? If so, should we expect him at 100%? If he cannot play, what does that mean for PSU’s offense?

BB: At his early week press conference, Franklin said he expected Allar to play on Friday. I honestly have no idea what he might look like with that injury to his throwing shoulder.

If he doesn’t play, Penn State will turn to redshirt freshman Beau Pribula, who is a fantastic runner. He physically looks like former Nittany Lion Trace McSorley and even wears No. 9. But he doesn’t throw like McSorley - or at least he hasn’t been allowed to even really test it. So, expect a steady dose of read option and designed quarterback runs if he does get the bulk of the snaps. He threw just one pass in the second half of Penn State’s win against Rutgers last weekend.

TOC: You have two RBs that have put up decent numbers this year in Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton. And both should be back next year. Do you think either of them could take a step forward next year and become a dominant player, and even an NFL prospect? Who else on the offense could develop into a star for Penn State?

BB: They’re both really good and I think both will play in the NFL. At the same time, it’s hard not to be underwhelmed with them this year compared to expectations. Singleton won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season and his standout season was capped by an electric touchdown run in the Rose Bowl. We haven’t seen anything like that this year. Some critics will note that he’s playing at a higher weight this year, but he’s shown explosiveness on a few kickoff returns and he’s been a better receiver out of the backfield this year. Allen easily could have shared the Freshman of the Year award with Singleton last year and he’s continued in his role as a tough between the hashes kind of runner.

And those two are a perfect microcosm of this Penn State offense. It’s filled with high-level recruits and potential NFL standouts. The offensive line is anchored by Olu Fashanu, who is projected as a Top 10 draft pick this spring. While Allar struggled mightily against Ohio State and Michigan, he’s had flashes of greatness in other games and his overall numbers, especially in terms of touchdowns to turnovers is amazing for a first-year starter. Both starting tight ends will play in the NFL and figure to be players that MSU should be afraid of, especially in the red zone. But, like has been mentioned previously, there’s been inconsistency at wide receiver and in terms of offensive game planning that’s been maddening for fans (and James Franklin).

TOC: Tell us about your defense. What is your base formation? Are there any common sub packages? Which level of the defense is the best? Who is the one player that opposing OCs need to be concerned with?

BB: It’s a great defense, every bit the rival of Michigan and Ohio State for the best in the conference and that was good enough to compete for a national title. Manny Diaz, in his second year, blitzes from all over the place out of a 4-3 front. He’ll also use a “prowler package” on passing downs that sees him get more defensive ends on the field.

In terms of personnel, there are pros at every level. Defensive end Chop Robinson, who was injured early in the second quarter against Ohio State, is back and creating all sorts of havoc. He will be a first round pick in April. Adisa Isaac and Dani Dennis-Sutton are two other talented defensive ends who will need to be accounted for on Friday. At the linebacker level, Detroit native Kobe King has come into his own of late, while Abdul Carter and Curtis Jacobs are future pros. In the secondary, it starts with Kobe’s twin brother Kalen, who figures to head to the NFL in April. Johnny Dixon is another really good corner and KJ Winston is an emerging star at safety.

I know I listed a ton of names, but I could probably add four or five more. Diaz subs as much as he blitzes. Now, the group did have one truly bad game - Indiana of all teams - where there were a couple of blown coverages and the Hoosiers found success running against a lighter front in what seemed like obvious passing situations.

TOC: What is the most important thing PSU needs to do to win on Friday night? Does the prospect of getting into a NY6 bowl game serve as a motivation for this team or is there a sentiment that the season is a disappointment now that they are not contending for the B1G title?

BB: There’s no doubt that it’s a disappointment, but I think Penn State got that out of its system against Rutgers. After losing to Ohio State earlier this year, the Lions were awful against Indiana and nearly lost. They regrouped to go on the road and smash Maryland. Now, after the loss to Michigan and the firing of their offensive coordinator, the Nittany Lions seem to be in a better headspace heading into Detroit having gotten through that Rutgers slog.

In terms of winning the game, it’s pretty basic stuff. Can Penn State’s offense sustain some drives - and maybe even hit a big play or two for the first time in forever? They really haven’t done that since opening their season with a win against West Virginia on NBC back on Labor Day Weekend. I would love to see Allar play and have success throwing the ball down the field. I’d love to see Singleton finally break a big play. And I’d really like to see Penn State’s defense leave no doubt that it’s one of the best units in the nation.

TOC: Bonus Question: Predict the final score.

BB: I think Penn State gets the job done, but in an underwhelming fashion compared to what Nittany Lion fans (like me) want to see. Penn State 27, Michigan State 17.

TOC would like to thank Brian for his contribution to this article. Hope your prediction is wrong.


Hey guys, as tomorrow is Thanksgiving, TOC is not going to have an instant recap article published right after tomorrow’s basketball game. Feel free to continue talking in the open thread until one of us has time to put out an article.

Enjoy the holiday!

And one last time this football season...