Penn State’s first night game of the year is here, as the Nittany Lions face Georgia State at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
For more insight on the Panthers, we caught up with Georgia State beat writer Ben Moore of 247 Sports.
Q: Georgia State shocked some people last year by leading in the fourth quarter and falling only 23-17 to Wisconsin. What did this team learn from that experience?
A: The biggest thing was that they just competed on a big stage. For several years in a row, they always challenged themselves and played the big dogs: at Alabama, at Tennessee, at Alabama again, went to Oregon ... You could kind of see the confidence building a little bit. I think the way the program — at least since the FBS — has raised is you could see them hit some awesome plays defensively. That was the thing at Wisconsin. They turned them over twice. They limited some of the long drives to field goals. That’s the biggest thing; just to be in the game and not roll over and have the typical roll-your-eyes, ‘Hey, they’re supposed to win,’ game.
Q: A part of the Wisconsin game last year was that quarterback Conner Manning had a really good performance. What’s his biggest strength when he’s on? What did you see in that Wisconsin game that you could see him carrying over into this game at Penn State?
A: He’s a cerebral guy; very smart guy. That kind of goes without saying — he was a two-and-a-half year graduate of Utah before transferring. He’s solid, not spectacular. He’s not going to really jump off the page, but I think he can make the right reads and find guys on-time. That’s the biggest thing. He’s not a huge kid and isn’t going to get off the bus first to wow anyone. But he’s got underrated arm strength. His accuracy has improved. What was tough about their opener (two weeks ago against Tennessee State) is he was picking up steam, playing pretty well and got hit with some friendly fire — caught an elbow from his own offensive lineman that knocked him out of the game in the third quarter. He’s looking to get back and take the next step for his senior season.
Q: Now, wide receiver Penny Hart was a freshman All-American in 2015 but was plagued by injuries last season. Everyone saw what he could do as a freshman. When he’s full-go, what makes him so dangerous?
A: He’s very, very elusive, and his football IQ is off the charts. He’s not just a tremendous athlete that’ll run a 4.4. But he’s a guy who studies what defenses are going to throw at him and what they’ll do based on tendencies. ... He’s going to know where the gaps are, and he’s going to find them. Some of the plays his freshman year when he scored were option routes. They were opportunities where he could look and say, ‘OK, where’s the safety? Is he playing in or playing out? Do I go up the seam?’ With his speed and agility, he can take a four- or five-yard pass and take it 80 yards. There are not too many guys in the Group of 5 level that have his speed.
Q: Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott has a lot of experience coaching at South Carolina with Steve Spurrier and Will Muschamp, but he was also integral to Appalachian State’s success. They famously upset Michigan while he was on-staff. Has he talked about that game in particular, and what could he draw from that?
A: He has mentioned it in the past. It instills confidence in the players, knowing the stage is never too big. It is just a game of football; it’s something all these guys have been playing since Pee-Wee. It’s instilling confidence and an air of winning that they know they can go play and know that, hey look, when adversity happens or the original plan doesn’t go the way you wanted it, there’s a way to pivot from it. He’s looking for a level of toughness. He’s also playing younger guys; six true freshmen saw the field two Thursdays ago in the opener. ... He’s throwing the best players in there, and you’ll see that Saturday night.
Q: For Penn State, the Nittany Lions are used to hosting the Ohio States and Michigans at night, so this is a little bit different. But for Georgia State — for it coming in and being able to play a night game at Beaver Stadium on the Big Ten Network — what does this game do for them from an exposure standpoint?
A: This is a part of the program still being in its infancy. Now having four players in the National Football League, it’s an opportunity for these guys now to reach their ultimate goal. They want to win this game and want to compete. But at the end of the year when you talk to these guys when they go through Pro Day in front of NFL scouts, they wanted to have faced the best. I got a chance to talk to some defensive players earlier in the week, and they know how good Saquon Barkley is. They know how tough he is to tackle; Coach Elliott mentioned that earlier this week. They want to take their shot and measure themselves against the best. That’s the impressive thing about the players in the program right now. They respect their opponents, but they’re guys who want to take their shot, have their opportunity and, quite frankly, play in an atmosphere we don’t see in the Sun Belt. ... This is their opportunity to play on the big stage.