UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s offense has three different speeds.
There’s the standard pace wherein the Nittany Lions huddle up. There’s the medium speed where a huddle is optional. Then there’s the rapid-fire, hurry-to-the-line, appropriately dubbed “NASCAR” attack.
Penn State’s offense has thrown a lot of NASCAR at its defense in preparation for Saturday’s showdown in Bloomington where Nittany Lion defenders will see plenty of hurry-up when they take on the Indiana Hoosiers (2-2) at Memorial Stadium.
“They’re the fastest team we’re going to face this year,” defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “They’re a heck of a football team when you look at their speed when they play accurate with that tempo.”
The Hoosiers have run nearly 77 plays per game and will look to continue that pace in the Big Ten opener. Through four games, the Indiana offense is picking up nearly 550 yards per game with most of it coming through the air. And although the Hoosier passing attack is led by a freshman quarterback, it has shown few signs of slowing down.
Indiana leads the Big Ten in total passing offense, gaining nearly 350 yards per game. Six-foot-5 quarterback Nate Sudfeld has taken advantage of the weapons around him. The freshman has completed 14 or more passes to four different targets and is averaging nine yards per attempt.
“They do it fast and they have a really good quarterback, who throws the ball accurately,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “And then they have some really good skill players. They throw the ball to the slot receiver, the wide receiver, the backs and so they have what I call really good space players. And that’s a tough offense to defend.”
Speedy receiver Shane Wynn lacks size at 5-foot-7, 170 pounds but makes up for it with his quickness in the open field. Fellow wideouts Cody Latimer and Kofi Hughes check in at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, respectively, and have used their size against opposing secondaries to combine for 18 and 15 yards per catch averages. Wynn and Hughes have each reeled in 14 catches while Latimer leads the team with 19.
Burly 6-foot-6, 252-pound tight end Ted Bolser also has 14 catches.
“They’re going to try to get the ball to their playmakers out in space and they’re going to try to make us make tackles in space and that’s what the game is going to be,” cornerback Jordan Lucas said.
Lucas, along with the rest of Penn State’s defense, fell victim to a precise passing attack in the loss to UCF. But, Lucas insisted Penn State’s defense is a much improved unit since the Week 3 debacle in which the Nittany Lions gave up 288 passing yards and 507 total yards to the Knights.
Since then, Lucas said he’s learned to leverage receivers better while all the defensive backs have tasked themselves with using their size more to their advantage.
“We like to play physical,” safety Adrian Amos said. “We’re a bigger secondary, so we have the ability to play more physical and we’re going to try to play more physical each week.”
They’ll get plenty of chances against the Hoosiers. Indiana utilizes quick, three-step drops and short passes to get its offense going. Wynn has done a lot of damage from the slot and in the screen-passing game while Hughes and Latimer have turned intermediate passes into bigger gains with yards after the catch.
UCF relied on a similar formula, often going right at Lucas and Trevor Williams, Penn State’s two young cornerbacks, while relying on receivers to find openings in Penn State’s coverage. They had plenty of time to do so as UCF quarterback Blake Bortles was barely harassed all game.
And while Indiana has given up just four sacks on the season, Penn State defensive linemen are focused on disrupting the Hoosier passing game in any way possible.
Jones knows it will be tough to sack Sudfeld if he takes just three drop steps most of the afternoon. There are other ways to throw off his timing however, Jones said.
“It’s going to be a quick passing game and we’ve got to go out there and try to make plays,” Jones said. “Our main thing is to get our hands up and just to make sure we get in the throwing lanes and disrupt the pass or blind him for a quick second. If you can get your hands up, you can disrupt it as much as possible.”
Penn State is taking a few cues from Missouri which held Indiana to its lowest point total of the season. In that game, a 45-28 Indiana loss, Sudfeld was not sacked but defensive linemen and linebackers combined to break up four passes and intercept three more.
“They just played relentless,” Jones said of the Tigers. “They never stopped their feet and their hands kept working. That’s something this defensive line, we can do. We’re confident we can go in there and get the pressure that we need to.”
Communication will also be key.
Penn State will face its first hostile crowd of the season on the road and has taken steps this week to make sure defensive players all echo defensive play calls as they’re relayed in.
“We have to react very fast,” Lucas said. “Everybody has to communicate properly so we can handle their tempo.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.