For the first time in more than two months, Penn State football players had a Saturday off.
Some, whose families and homes are within driving distances, ventured out of State College for the first time since the season opener at MetLife Stadium. Soon, they’ll be on their way out of town again for the Big Ten opener at Indiana.
Bill O’Brien is hoping the weekend off, combined with a week free of the stresses of preparing for a game, will pay dividends when the Nittany Lions (3-1) take on the Hoosiers (2-2) on at noon Saturday.
“I think we had a really productive bye week. Again, how productive was the bye week? The proof’s in the pudding on Saturday against Indiana,” O’Brien said. “I think it was important for everybody, coaches included, to take a step back and analyze everything and also for our guys to be able to practice without the pressure of having a game on Saturday and then be able to at the end of the week go home.”
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They also got to rest up and get healthy.
“As a team you enjoy the bye week,” running back Zach Zwinak said. “It’s a time to take off and let everybody’s bangs and bumps heal.”
None of those bumps and bruises have been as significant as the ailment that has kept linebacker Mike Hull out of the lineup. Hull didn’t play in Penn State’s 34-0 win against Kent State on Sept. 21 and has had two weeks to heal from a knee injury he sustained in the opener against Syracuse.
After that game Hull didn’t play in the Eastern Michigan contest and was limited against UCF. By the time Penn State arrives at Memorial Stadium to play the Hoosiers, Hull will have had nearly three weeks of recovery time.
“Mike Hull is a full go and should be ready for the game on Saturday obviously barring anything that would happen this week,” O’Brien said. “He’s had a tough time coming back from it but it looked to me as of (Monday) he was moving around better. He feels better.”
Hull played sparingly against UCF and the Penn State defense was no match for quarterback Black Bortles and his receivers who operated well, breaking tackles and eluding Penn State tacklers in the open field. The Hoosiers bring a similar approach.
Although the Indiana offense is balanced in its attack — the Hoosiers have called 154 running plays to 152 passes on the season — freshman quarterback Nate Sudfeld has found success spreading the ball around to his skill position players who have operated well in space.
Cody Latimer leads the Hoosiers with 19 catches but Shane Wynn, Kofi Hughes and tight end Ted Bolser all have 14 catches apiece. All four of them are averaging over 11 yards per catch in an offense that has racked up a Big Ten-best 1,394 passing yards this season.
“They get you into situations where you’re going to have to make plays in space,” O’Brien said of the Indiana offense. “So handling the tempo, being able to tackle in space and not give up a ton of (explosive) plays is a big part of the game plan.”
Getting Hull back should certainly help that.
One of Penn State’s quickest, most instinctive defensive players, a fully healthy Hull brings athleticism and speed to a Penn State linebacking corps that has relied on a heavy rotation of players to stem the tide so far.
Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has contributed while Nyeem Wartman and Ben Kline have also rotated in and out alongside stalwart Glenn Carson. But none of them bring the experience Hull offers at the position, and so far Hull has not played more than 15 snaps in either game he’s been able to play in. That could change on Saturday.
“He has an impact on the defense,” O’Brien said. “He’s a tough kid, Pittsburgh kid. (He) was a great wrestler in high school and just brings a toughness to our football team.”
Penn State will be without safety Ryan Keiser, who will sit out with a hand injury. Keiser played his best game of the season against Kent State when he snagged an interception, notched a sack and broke up three passes. Keiser’s loss also affects the special teams units — he is the holder on place kicks.
Punter Alex Butterworth will handle holding duties.
“I think we’ll be okay there because Alex holds for Sam during practice,” O’Brien said. “Obviously (Keiser) is our starting holder and that’s not easy when the holder goes out but I think, knock on wood, that we’ll be OK there because Alex does that quite a bit with Sam.”