By: Thomas Frank Carr
Each week reporter Thomas Frank Carr breaks down five aspects of Penn State’s next game that he thinks will have an impact on the outcome. This week he takes a look at Penn State vs Indiana. Note: Obvious story lines such as Indiana’s passing attack are omitted because they are already well covered elsewhere.
- Right Tackle Roulette
While this is a much bigger issue than being listed at number five, it fits snugly into the category because it’s the first thing you probably have noticed about the offense. Chasz Wright has been splitting time at right tackle with Andrew Nelson since he was cleared to play.
Last week Wright was missing (no explanation) so Will Fries came into the game in the 2nd quarter after Nelson was beaten several times or aggravated his previous knee injury (also no explanation)
James Franklin did say that the team expects to have Chasz Wright back this week, but who knows if he will play a full game. The unfortunate part is that while Andrew Nelson is a great leader, teammate and person, he simply is not the same player he was before his many knee injuries. It is evident by the fact that the team pulled him in a critical 2nd half vs Iowa.
Franklin said before the season that he wants to find five guys and stick with them all season. Again, we don’t know if injuries have played a factor in this ‘rotation’ at right tackle, but the offense is worse off for it. Finding a guy and sticking with him seems like the best solution to the problem.
- Positive Progress
Last week James Franklin said that progress of the offensive line would be measured more by the eye test and not necessarily by statistics. For those who don’t know how to measure by the eye test, here are a couple stats that point to an improvement of the front five for the Nittany Lions.
Through 14 games last year the Nittany Lions lost nearly 500 yards rushing, which also counts sack yardage. That roughly equates to 35 yards per game in lost rushing yardage.
This year through four games the offense has lost 81 yards rushing, which equates to a shade over 20 yards per game.
Clearly last week’s offensive explosion helped but the difference has been steady throughout the 2017 season. The offense has gotten back roughly 15 yards per game in lost yardage, which has equated to better drive lengths and improved 3rd down percentages.
- Tipping the Scales
Indiana stifled Penn State’s offense in Bloomington last year. Part of that was due to injury along the offensive line and quarterback, but it was also due to the stellar play of the Indiana defense. The center of that defense is linebacker Tegray Scales
“The biggest thing with him is he’s a physical guy. He’s got really good instincts. I think his greatest strength is in the box, you know, getting the defensive line lined up, making adjustments and being a physical, downhill player from tackle-to-tackle.
I think probably the area that he’s improved over the last couple years is outside of the box, you know, being able to make plays on the perimeter running from sideline-to-sideline. The biggest thing with him is he’s a physical guy. He’s got really good instincts. I think his greatest strength is in the box, you know, getting the defensive line lined up, making adjustments and being a physical, downhill player from tackle-to-tackle,” Said Penn State head Coach James Franklin about the senior linebacker.
That’s a dangerous combination because Scales has the speed that teams covet at the linebacker position. Combine that with a physical play style and an attacking mentality and you have a wrecking crew of a middle linebacker.
The talent around scales is not what is was last year. His team provided the template that Iowa used to stymie the Penn State offensive attack for Iowa last week but they do not have the personnel to hold up again this year.
If they have a new plan, Scales will be at the center of it.
- Tempo Troubles
Multiple defensive players have said this week that Indiana’s up tempo offense got to them several times last year.
“Probably the tempo and speed got to us a bit, but this year we’ve made a lot of corrections,” said senior safety Christian Campbell. One of those corrections was getting the defensive call in faster,
“Getting the calls late. It wasn’t the full reason, but it was one of the reasons. We’ve been practicing for the tempo all week. They have a good passing game.”
Penn State’s defensive backfield has been playing lights out through the first month of the season but this will be their stiffest test in terms of opposing talent. None of the starting Indiana receivers are under six feet tall and all are highly productive players who have good chemistry with starting quarterback Richard Lagow. Combine that with a freshman tailback that showed some pop last week vs Georgia Southern, and Indiana could pose a threat to stay with Penn State if the game turns into a shootout.
- Opportunity Knocks
Here’s another stat that shows improvement from last year. Through 14 games in 2016, the Penn State defense has a total of 83 points off turnovers. This year through four games they have 56.
“I think that’s just us just emphasizing the need for turnover. Turnovers are so important because they create a scoring opportunity for the defense, and for the offense and in worst case scenario is they turn into really good field position. Last week our drive start battle wasn’t as good as it normally was because of the turnovers (on offense) that we had. If you went strictly off of special teams we would have been in good shape. I think that falls more in just the emphasis of turnovers and how that could make us a better defense and a better team and then our offense has an opportunity to capitalize on,” James Franklin said asked about that stat.
Hidden behind the inflate scores this year is the fact that Penn State has gotten at least seven points off turnovers in each of its first four games, highlighted by a 35 point performance vs Georgia State. The Nittany Lion’s offense only scored 14 points on their own last week vs Iowa.
This isn’t inherently a bad thing. In fact it’s a good thing that the defense is contributing turnovers and putting the offense in position to score, but it can’t be ignored that the offense isn’t clicking like it was last year.
Quarterback Trace McSorley is missing on deep shots that he didn’t last year and the offense has failed to stretch the field with big plays to wide receivers in 2017. It took five weeks for the Nittany Lions to get their legs underneath them offensively last year, let’s see if that’s the case this week.
This just in- Saquon Barkley is really, really good. He should be fun to watch on Saturday.