Penn State-Eastern Michigan: Who has the edge?

September 7, 2013 

QUARTERBACKS

Christian Hackenberg solidified his grasp on the starting spot with a solid outing in his first start. He used a calm demeanor to toss a pair of scoring passes and complete 71 percent of his throws for 278 yards. His two interceptions were ill-advised throws but Hackenberg already seems to have somewhat of a command of the offense. Tyler Benz will make his 11th start for the Eagles but has been up and down. He tossed eight interceptions last season and completed just over 50 percent of his passes. Advantage: Penn State

RUNNING BACKS

Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton were bottled up last week but should break out against a defense that has been unable to stop the run for years. Eastern Michigan plans to work sophomore Darius Jackson into the rotation more along with starter Bronson Hill. Eastern Michigan did not have a 1,000-yard rusher last season. Advantage: Penn State

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Eastern Michigan’s core group of Donald Scott, Dustin Creel and Demarius Reed all return after making starts last season but none of the three caught 20 or more passes last season. Allen Robinson is one of the country’s best downfield weapons and Eugene Lewis emerged in the Syracuse game as a viable deep option for Penn State. Although Penn State lost tight end Matt Lehman for the season and Kyle Carter is questionable, the Nittany Lions still have Jesse James and Adam Breneman who could see more playing time. The Eagles’ top returning tight end, junior Tyreese Russel, caught just 12 passes last season. Advantage: Penn State

OFFENSIVE LINE

The Eagles return just three starters and have struggled over the past few seasons to protect the quarterback and establish a viable ground attack. Eastern Michigan gave up 22 sacks last season with two against Howard. Penn State’s offensive line is much bigger and more experienced and will be eager to improve on its lack of push against Syracuse. Advantage: Penn State

DEFENSIVE LINE

Eastern Michigan returns six of its top eight defensive linemen but that doesn’t change the fact that the Eagles gave up 267 rushing yards per game last season, the worst of any FBS team. The Eagles run a 3-4 defense and rely on their linebackers to provide a pass rush. Penn State’s defensive line was lights out against Syracuse, forcing the Orange to rely on more outside runs as the middle was impenetrable. Advantage: Penn State

LINEBACKERS

Although Penn State could be without Mike Hull who was unable to return to the Syracuse game with a right leg injury, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong stepped up and played admirably. He made plays all over the field. Ben Kline took on a heavy workload to augment Hull’s absence. Eastern Michigan lost three players to graduation that combined for 257 tackles last season and three its starting four — Omar McFarlane, Hunter Matt and Ike Spearman — are just sophomores. Advantage: Penn State

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Trevor Williams and Jordan Lucas made impressive debuts against the Orange while Malcolm Willis, Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser bring experience to the safety spots for Penn State. Willie Creer is a junior college transfer who picked off a pass last week for Eastern Michigan and the Eagles have six players with at least one start in the defensive backfield back. Advantage: Penn State

SPECIAL TEAMS

Sam Ficken has turned it around and is riding a consistent streak that could see him make history for Penn State with his 14th straight make. Penn State needs to improve its return game where the Nittany Lions are still looking for a de facto returner. Eastern Michigan kick returner Tyler Allen is a dangerous player in the open field. He averaged 22.5 kickoff return yards last season and led the MAC with 1,036 return yards. The Eagles lost Australian punter Jay Karutz but kicker Dylan Mulder is back after making 10 of 11 kicks last season. Advantage: Penn State

COACHING/INTANGIBLES

Look for Bill O’Brien to give Hackenberg more to do and improve his third down calls where the Nittany Lions were just 1-for-16 last week. Ron English was the MAC’s Coach of the Year in 2011 but is just 11-38 as a head coach. The Eagles have never beaten a Big Ten team. Advantage: Penn State

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