As the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions prepare for a big matchup this Saturday, I asked a few questions to Mark Wogenrich, Publisher of AllPennState in our Sports Illustrated network. Here are
Brendan Gulick: How concerned are you about special teams this week after 3 missed field goals last Saturday (albeit one from 57 yards)?
Mark Wogenrich: Special teams were a real disappointment, particularly since Penn State awarded its inaugural jersey No. 0 to a special-teams captain to emphasize that unit’s importance. It wasn’t just the field goals. The Lions muffed two kicks (a punt and kickoff) and were flagged for kick-catch interference. Meanwhile, kicker Jake Pinegar, who missed one field goal in 2019, pulled two left in the first half. That included a 25-yard attempt on a gifted fumble to end the half. This group has to be significantly better.
BG: With Journey Brown and Noah Cain both out, how confident are the Nittany Lions that they can run the ball?
MW: As confident as they can be with a sophomore who scored the accidental touchdown against Indiana and two true freshmen who began the season fourth and fifth on the depth chart. Coach James Franklin said he intended for Devyn Ford to be a “complementary” back to Noah Cain, but Ford, the lightest of Penn State’s backs at 205 pounds, has to be more assertive.
Ford most likely will get the bulk of the carries, though quarterback Sean Clifford might anchor the run game. He carried 17 times against Indiana, partly because of Cain’s injury and partly to settle his nerves after two first-half interceptions. I don’t think Penn State entered the season planning to run Clifford as much as he did last year. Now, the team might not have a choice. Another back to watch is 230-pound freshman Keyvone Lee, who looked good throwing his body into some second-half runs.
BG: Where can Sean Clifford take his game to another level? Where does he need to excel in particular on Saturday?
MW: The deep ball, on both counts. Clifford had one true explosive pass play against Indiana, a 60-yard touchdown pass to Jahan Dotson that he seemed antsy to throw all game long. Stretching the field was his Achilles last season and continued to be the case last week. But it’s not all him. Clifford didn’t seem to be getting help from his inexperienced receivers, something else that has to improve.
BG: Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson has been playing in the slot as well as on the outside. Last week, he burned a couple of linebackers that tried to cover him. How do you think the Nittany Lions can cover him if he lines up inside?
MW: Two of Penn State’s strongest players against Indiana were cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter Jr. Both really corralled Indiana’s receivers, even on the game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter when the Hoosiers made some astonishing plays. If Wilson is inside, Penn State likely will have to bring in another young cornerback like Keaton Ellis or Marquis Wilson, both of whom played well last season. If Wilson gets on a linebacker or safety, he’ll have a significant edge.
BG: What is the atmosphere like right now around the program? Saturday's loss was devastating, but I think Indiana doesn't get enough credit for being a good team. Do you sense that the team feels like the season now entirely hinges on Saturday's outcome?
MW: They won’t say it, but the feeling has to be there. Penn State committed 10 penalties and three turnovers for the first time under Franklin. It had the mental breakdown in scoring a touchdown that Indiana allowed. And it still ultimately got beat on a controversial officiating decision in overtime. The Lions know they’re better than what they put on tape Saturday. They also know they’ll have to be against Ohio State.
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