Georgia State quarterback Conner Manning is in trouble.
No, it’s not because he’s about to start in a night game at Beaver Stadium 16 days removed from being knocked out of the Panthers’ season-opening 17-10 loss to Tennessee State, an FCS program, by a teammate’s unintentional elbow.
Manning should worry because he’s dealing with all of that while facing Penn State cornerbacks that are “playing at an elite level” to start the 2017 season.
“We’re making plays on the football better than we’ve done the last three years here,” Nittany Lions cornerbacks coach Terry Smith said. “They work really hard during the week to perfect their craft. They worked really hard during the offseason to get their footwork and eye discipline in place.”
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And it’s shown. Even without the injured John Reid — Penn State’s best corner in 2016 — the guys in his position group have picked it up.
All throughout spring and fall, the storyline surrounding Grant Haley, Christian Campbell and company was that they were working on the JUGS machines non-stop. They wanted more turnovers, and they wanted to make more plays. Plain and simple.
Penn State’s corners have certainly done that through two games.
Amani Oruwariye — the group’s “third starter” — acrobatically picked off Akron’s Thomas Woodson in the opener. He and his teammates limited the Zips quarterback to 71 passing yards on 23 attempts.
Haley all but gave the Nittany Lions an early lead the next week against Pitt. The senior intercepted Panthers quarterback Max Browne and returned it 42 yards, setting up the first of four Penn State touchdowns.
In these first two contests, Campbell leads the team with four pass breakups. As a team, the Nittany Lions have 12 already. It took Penn State four games to reach 12 breakups in 2016.
The Nittany Lions had only 50 total pass breakups last season; they’re on-pace for 78 in 2017.
So, what’s the reason for the early success? The corners’ confidence in their maturity and offseason training.
“I know we really worked all offseason creating turnovers and taking those chances to make bigger plays,” Haley said, “turning the pass breakups into picks, and I think we’ve seen strides in that in the first two games.”
Haley and his teammates are in a position to keep that going into Big Ten play.
Penn State’s front-four should feast against an offensive line that gave up three sacks to Tennessee State, allowing the corners to pounce on third-and-long situations. Manning is also susceptible to turnovers, tossing 13 picks in 2016 — the second-worst mark in the Sun Belt Conference.
Sure, Georgia State has a few ways it can challenge the Penn State secondary.
Penny Hart, a former freshman All-American, is a burner and worthy of the Nittany Lions’ attention. “We’re cognizant of that,” Penn State safety Nick Scott added. Manning also wasn’t shabby in Georgia State’s 23-17 road loss at Wisconsin last season, throwing for 269 yards and a touchdown while completing 20 of 29 passes (69 percent).
Still, all things point to Penn State’s corners continuing their “elite” play on Saturday.
Haley said they’re taking pride in how they’ve started 2017, and they don’t want the positive vibes to stop.
Smith knows that better than anyone.
“We’re LBU with the ‘Wild Dogs’ up front, but our guys want to make a name for themselves,” Smith said. “That’s what they’ve done the first two games. It’s a long season. The third game is up, and we’re preparing to make some plays when they’re presented to us.”