Penn State football: Hoosiers’ offense seeks breakthrough vs. Nittany Lions

wmoody@centredaily.comOctober 5, 2013 

You don’t need a calculator to figure out Indiana’s winning percentage against Penn State.

“Never” makes it easy to calculate.

But as the Nittany Lions (3-1) head to Bloomington for the Big Ten opener Saturday, there’s some hope from the Hoosiers (2-2) they can finally end that 0 for 16 slide.

The source of optimism comes from a high-flying offense that is putting up 44.5 points per game. Freshman quarterback Nate Sudfeld is throwing for 287 yards per game and has fired 11 touchdown passes. Running back Tevin Coleman is averaging 97 yards per game on the ground and four different receivers have 14 or more catches.

And the Hoosiers are doing it a breakneck speed under head coach Kevin Wilson, who was offensive coordinator at Oklahoma before taking over the Indiana program in 2011. Wilson wants to put the pedal to the floorboard and pressure defenses at all times.

“They do a fantastic job,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “Kevin Wilson has done a really good job … trying to run 90 to 100 plays a game. So you have to get lined up, communicate properly and handle the tempo.

“They have some really good skill players. … They get you into situations where you’re going to have to make plays in space, so handling the tempo and being able to tackle in space and not give up a ton of explosive plays is a big part of the game plan.”

Penn State, which is a 31/2 point favorite, has been solid defensively most of the season, but buckled under similar pressure in a 34-31 loss against Central Florida.

The Nittany Lions were unable to get pressure on the Knights’ Blake Bortles, who picked apart their young secondary. For the season, Penn State has just eight sacks, three coming in a 34-0 romp against Kent State two weeks ago, and has forced just five turnovers.

“As we get into the heart of the Big Ten, we have to cause more turnovers,” safety Adrian Amos said.

The Penn State defense will get a lift with the return of outside linebacker Mike Hull, who has missed two full games and seen spotty action since injuring his right knee in the season-opener against Syracuse.

As threatening as Indiana’s offense has been, the Hoosiers’ defense has been as porous. Indiana is giving up nearly 33 points per game and has been torched for more than 40 points in losses to Navy (41-25) and Missouri (45-28).

Opponents are really striking paydirt on the ground against Indiana. The Hoosiers are giving up 248 yards per game on the ground.

“We’ve had significant amounts of miscommunication, misalignment and we’re not as sound as we need to be, versus we’re getting totally blocked all the time,” Wilson explained. “We got guys not hitting right gaps and guys trying to make plays.”

The numbers that should make Penn State’s three-headed monster at tailback lick its chops. Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch are combining for 203 yards on the ground per game. Led by Zwinak’s eight, the trio has rushed for 11 scores.

“It’s always important to run the ball,” offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “It sets up a lot of things in the offense, burns clock and it’s an important part of the game.”

Burning some clock is important to O’Brien, who likes to play fast, but knows how taxing Indiana’s attack can be if the Nittany Lions’ defense is constantly on the field.

“You don’t want to put your defense in bad situations where they’ve just been out there for a while,” said O’Brien, who has criticized himself for play calling. “You go up-tempo. It’s a 30-second drive. You’re three-and-out, and your defense is right back out there. That’s not being a very good head coach or offensive coordinator.”

Penn State true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg will make his first Big Ten start. He’s coming off his worst performance of the season, a 13 for 35 afternoon in the rain against Kent State.

Even with that tough outing, Hackenberg has looked poised and is completing 62 percent of his passes. Allen Robinson has 26 catches and is the most dangerous receiver in the league.

“They piece it together and they’ve got a bunch of nice pieces,” Wilson said.

Both teams are coming off bye weeks and both will be looking for improvements.

“Our team’s identity is pretty much formed after the first four weeks, so you can look at things like heavy tendencies and different areas of the field or down and distances and whatever you may have tendency-wise and try to correct those,” O’Brien said.

Indiana will be looking to break 16 years of misery against the Nittany Lions.

Wilson, though, is stressing the present and not the past.

“This team has never beaten this team and it’s this team, and so we talk about this team,” he said. “The dynamics are different every year. We’re not bringing all the teams back and playing one in a row and all that deal. This is the only time this team will have a chance to play this game.”

And even with all of that history, nothing is certain.

“We’ll see what they do but it’s going to be a tough game no matter what,” Zwinak said. “It’s the Big Ten and everybody gets up, ready to play in these games.”

CDT sportswriter Travis Johnson contributed to this story.

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