Thanks to Devon Edwards, of SB Nation's excellent Black Shoe Diaries, for dropping in to answer some of my questions about this year's Penn State football team. The Terps and Nittany Lions haven't met in more than two decades, so a little brushing up is in order. Like most of our guests in this feature, Devon's a good follow on Twitter ahead of the Terps' Saturday visit to Happy Valley. Be sure, also, to check out the other end of this Q&A on the Penn State site.
Let's have at it, shall we?
TT: I'm still a student myself, and Maryland has never played Penn State in my lifetime. But I get the feeling from a lot of older Maryland fans that they're taking Saturday's game very seriously. Do you look back on Penn State's overwhelming success against Maryland from decades ago and view this meeting as a rivalry that could be rekindled? What's your perception of Maryland?
BSD: Yeah, I wasn't quite in my prime football-watching years when Penn State and Maryland were playing annually either, so I haven't really known them as anything but a mid-tier ACC program that generally seems to be in the echelon below Penn State. The same question kind of came up when Penn State was gearing up to play Rutgers, and there's the same answer: we don't want to engage in rivalry antics with Maryland, because there's not that much upside. The perception around the Big Ten is that Maryland was brought in to try and shore up the DC market, and that you'll be a team that wins 3 or 4 games a year and generally stays out of the way of the Ohio States and Michigan States of the conference. Penn State will think of itself, once the sanction effects wear off, as more among that group, and in any event, we'd rather punch up than get geared up for Maryland.
(Ed. note: In a bit of a surprise, Penn State's official media notes for this week prominently feature a section about the Penn-State Maryland series, where it's referred to as one of Penn State's "oldest rivalries." Maryland's notes do not include any references to a rivalry between the two teams.)
TT: Former Maryland assistant James Franklin has gotten a little bit of publicity since Penn State brought him on to replace Bill O'Brien. Have the Nittany Lions' struggles this month done anything to shake confidence in him?
BSD: Penn State fans--at least, the rational ones--understood that this was going to be a rebuilding year, the year the sanctions would really start to hurt. There is, entirely justifiably, a very long leash for Franklin, given some of the very real personnel deficiencies. The first few months of Franklin's tenure were so unimpeachably perfect--dominating on the recruiting trail, saying all the right things, being a very public face of the program, and even winning his first four games--almost set him up for failure when the team's weaknesses would catch up with him. I don't know that the bloom has come off the rose as much as Penn State fans have recognized what Franklin is and what he isn't. The offensive gameplans and playcalling have been abysmal, and there's a real question of whether he delegates too much. But I don't think anyone isn't convinced that Penn State can win Big Ten championships with him at the helm.
TT: Can you familiarize Maryland fans with the offensive and defensive systems and approaches Penn State will deploy?
BSD: Defensively, Penn State's going to be a straight, no-frils, base 4-3 defense, and when you've got a front 7 as good as we've got, there's no reason to bother trying anything else. It'll be mostly zone, with some blitzing from the second level. The offensive schemes have been a mess--Penn State's offensive ine has been impossibly bad, which limits what John Donovan and co. have been able to do. It's kind of forced Penn State into a shotgun spread, quick-fire offense, with tons of receiver screens and quick hitters, and not nearly enough slants. The run game is mostly inside-zone. You may see a little bit of wildcat. It will fail spectacularly.
TT: What's gone wrong this year for quarterback Christian Hackenberg, and how can he get better?
BSD: So, Hackenberg has lost a lot this year: he's gone from playing behind a perfectly cromulent offensive line to a group that's been a complete sieve. He went from having a very good run game to one of the worst in the country. Allen Robinson went to the pros. But most of all, Bill O'Brien and Charlie Fisher did, too. Those two aren't just QB whisperers--they turned Matt McGloin into an NFL quarterback, man--but operated a pro-style offense designed for a pocket passer like Hack. He's regressed because he's a square peg in John Donovan's round hole of an offense that doesn't give him the opportunity to make enough downfield throws, or use Penn State's deep, talented tight end corps in anything more than a token role. He'd improve if the offensive line improved, or if John Donovan suddenly learned how to be a competent offensive coordinator. Who knows when those will happen?
TT: DaeSean Hamilton has developed into one of the Big Ten's more dangerous receiving threats. Other than him, who should the Terrapins be wary of on the Penn State offense?
BSD: Hamilton's been great, but he's less dangerous than you might think. Most of his damage is a function of quantity, not quality; he's taken Allen Robinson's short-passing-game duty, and though he's got good ball skills, he hasn't been asked to go downfield too often. The other receiver, Geno Lewis, has been the deep ball target, though he's been in and out of the lineup with injuries, academic concerns, and some other off-field issues. At running back, Zach Zwinak hurt his ankle last week and is out for the season, but Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch have been better, anyway. Lynch is a decisive, one-cut back, who really ought to be getting the majority of the carries, though Belton's a better blocker and receiver.
TT: Penn State's defense, obviously, has been better than its offense. What's been the key to that unit's success?
BSD: Bob Shoop has been the polar opposite of John Donovan--his defense has adapted to meet its personnel, it has seen midseason changes to address weaknesses, and every button that Shoop has pressed has seemed to work. It helps, though, when you've got the personnel to work with that he's got: Mike Hull and Anthony Zettel may well be the two best defensive players in the Big Ten; Zettel is an insanely athletic defensive tackle who will get into the backfield and disrupt the passing game, while Hull is a tackling machine with as good a nose for the football as there is in the country. There's also Austin Johnson, a space-eating nosetackle, and Deion Barnes, a resurgent edge rusher rounding out the defensive line, which proved last week that it's very much for real in both the run and passing games. The secondary has been solid enough, too--corner Jordan Lucas and safety Adrian Amos haven't been targeted often, while RCB Trevor Williams is the weak link. Starting free safety Ryan Keiser, a walk-on, is out for the season, with true freshman Marcus Allen playing well in his absence last year. Essentially, the defense is one that will own the line of scrimmage and tends to avoid making mistakes beyond it. That's been a recipe for success.
TT: If the Terps are to have any offensive success at all, how will they go about doing it?
BSD: There is a fairly simple blueprint, though it's tough to keep up for a full 60 minutes: spread Penn State out, force them to make tackles in space, and hope your line can block enough to try and exploit the middle of the field. Ohio State found success in the former, with the read option, and teams like Northwestern were able to exploit the linebackers in the second level with tight ends running 15-20 yards downfield. Stefon Diggs is slippery enough that getting him the ball on the edge will reliably move the chains a few yards at a time, even against Penn State's pursuit. But know that you're not going to line up and run it down Penn State's throat--and you're probably not going to have enough time to challenge Williams deep with much consistency.
TT: Last, and I'll let you go: What's your prediction for this game?
BSD: I really don't trust Penn State's offense, and I imagine there will be some letdown for a noon kickoff against Maryland, coming after the primetime whiteout against Ohio State that had been circled on everyone's calendars for months--and that saw, unquestionably, the best effort the team's had all season. If you could guarantee that Penn State would play with the same intensity as they did last week, I'd think it might not be so close, but it'll take some time to shake off the hangover. Let's go with Penn State overcoming a slow start to win, 17-13.