UNIVERSITY PARK — Ron English is still trying to point the Eastern Michigan football program in the right direction.
The Eagles, who haven’t had a winning season since 1995, were able to stage a turnaround last week, beating Howard 34-24 after trailing in the third quarter.
“I thought Howard was really well-coached, they did a great job in all three phases of the game,” English said. “I thought offensively they had a very good plan for us and I thought their tempo was a little bit bothersome. ... That’s a game that this program in the past would have really struggled to win and just to keep playing and that’s what we’ve talked about for the past eight or nine months. So I’m kind of glad it came down to that type of game.”
Now, a week removed from struggling against a team that competes at the Football Championship Subdivision level, the Eagles are tasked with playing a bigger, stronger Penn State team coached by a former NFL offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien.
English realizes the test that awaits Saturday at Beaver Stadium will be exponentially tougher for his Eagles. Eastern Michigan (1-0) finished 2-10 last season and is just 10-31 in its last five seasons.
“It’s a great Penn State team. I think they are very well-coached. They do have a young quarterback playing right now,” English said. “They have one of the best receivers in America. They have a hybrid tight end (that) I think is a very good football player and they’re playing with multiple tight ends.”
But it remains to be seen if that hybrid tight end, Penn State’s Kyle Carter, will even play. Carter, along with linebacker Mike Hull, were listed as day-to-day after both suffered injuries in the Syracuse game. Carter returned to that game with his left arm wrapped while Hull did not play in the second half with a right leg injury.
Penn State struggled to run the ball against Syracuse due to the Orange stacking the line of scrimmage with defenders, forcing true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg to beat them with his arm. O’Brien said he sees a lot of similarities in the way Eastern Michigan tries to defend the run.
While the Eagles were the worst defense against the run last season in the Football Bowl Subdivision level — they gave up 267 yards per game, O’Brien said the Penn State running game still has a lot to improve on after rushing for just 1.5 yards per carry against Syracuse.
“They line-up in different fronts and coverages, and they’re going to pressure you,” O’Brien said. “I think offensively it’s similar to what Syracuse was. You’re going to see spread gun, run-type things and schemes that try to take advantage of your schemes.”
The Eagles return a total of 14 starters with eight of those on offense.
Junior quarterback Tyler Benz will make his 11th start and lead a passing attack that returns three of its top targets from last season. Running back Bronson Hill is back after averaging 6.6 yards per carry last season for the Eagles, and English said sophomore Darius Jackson will see more playing time behind Hill against the Nittany Lions.
Jackson sealed his team’s comeback win against Howard with a 19-yard run in the fourth quarter.
“We expect him to get the football and run hard and make plays and he made a terrific run for the last touchdown (against Howard),” English said.
Defensively, the Eagles are led by their line, which returns three starters from last season.
“They play tough, they have some kids that can really run and you better be on your P’s and Q’s because they’re going to come after you,” O’Brien said.