UMass (0-3, 0-0 MAC) visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday to take on Penn State (3-0, 1-0 Big Ten) in the Nittany Lions’ second-to-last non-conference game. Which team has the edge position-by-position?
Will this be the game Penn State’s front five gets it all together? Penn State coaches sure hope so. The Nittany Lions gave up five sacks last week to Rutgers and have yet to pave the way for a 100-yard rusher. Still, the Nittany Lions were able to set blocks when they mattered most, helping clear the road for Bill Belton’s five-yard touchdown run last week. Can they do that consistently and can they eliminate the mistakes? Penn State offensive linemen committed four infractions last week and two cost the Nittany Lions big gains plus a touchdown. UMass has some inexperience up front too. Left tackle Tyrell Smith, right guard Josh Bruns and right tackle Elijah Wilkinson will all be making just their third starts. The Minutemen have given up eight sacks and are averaging 82 rushing yards per game this season. Both lines could be much better. Advantage: Push
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Christian Hackenberg added another chapter to his young legacy with his fourth game-tying or game-winning fourth-quarter drive against Rutgers. He did so after taking a beating all night, and his only interception was on a tipped ball. He’ll be making his 16th straight start and will have the upper hand on nearly every opposing quarterback the Nittany Lions will face the rest of the season. Blake Frohnapfel will be making his fourth start for the Minutemen. The former Marshall backup is still trying to establish a rhythm. He’s completing less than 50 percent of his passes and is averaging 206 yards per game. He’s a big man at 6-foot-6 and 229 pounds but has played poorly as games have worn on. Frohnapfel is completing just 37 percent of his passes in the second half, and has thrown for just 254 second-half yards with one touchdown and two interceptions so far. Advantage: Penn State
The Minutemen suffered a blow last week when leading rusher Jamal Wilson went down with an injured ankle. Although coach Mark Whipple said Wilson’s injury may not be as bad as originally feared, Wilson’s status for the game is in doubt. UMass doesn’t have many options left. Backup J.T. Blyden didn’t play in Week 3 with an injury and Shadrach Abrokwah is also out. Lorenzo Woodley appears to be the next man up. He’s carried the ball 24 times for just 53 yards and has scored twice this season. Penn State has plenty of depth but Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch haven’t had much room to run. They need to do a better job of getting north and south, however. Advantage: Penn State
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Penn State enters the weekend as the only FBS team with two receivers averaging more than 100-plus yards per game. DaeSean Hamilton and Eugene Lewis have been fantastic thus far. Tight end Jesse James continues to be the team’s third option and is a potent option in the short game and deep game, while freshman Chris Godwin has also had a small role that could get bigger. Tajae Sharpe leads UMass with 15 catches for 246 yards. After him, the Minutemen have four wideouts with five catches apiece. Former Nittany Lion Alex Kenney has speed but does he have the experience in UMass’s offense to be a factor at this point? He has just one catch for 14 yards. Advantage: Penn State
Anthony Zettel is having quite a year so far for Penn State. More than half of his tackles (seven) have come behind the line of scrimmage and he’s tied for second in the Big Ten with three sacks. Penn State’s starting front four have combined for 14 tackles for loss and six sacks. Defensive ends Brad Bars and Carl Nassib and tackles Parker Cothren, Tyrone Smith and Tarow Barney continue to provide serviceable depth. UMass’s front three — ends Peter Angeh and Sha-Ki Holines and nose tackle Robert Kitching — have combined for just five starts. The Minutemen are allowing 218 rushing yards per game. Advantage: Penn State
Jovan Santos-Knox leads the nation in tackles with 42. The UMass junior has had plenty of chances as the Minutemen defense seems to be constantly on the field. Meanwhile, Stanley Andre has 30 stops on the season. Knox and Andre are both big backers at more than 240 pounds apiece. Knox and outside backer Kassan Messiah have two of the team’s three sacks. Penn State’s defensive captain Mike Hull has been consistently good and leads the Nittany Lions with 31 stops. Brandon Bell continues to emerge as one of Penn State’s most instinctive defenders. Advantage: Penn State
The Penn State secondary picked off four passes last week while linebacker Bell had another. The best news for the Nittany Lions is that Trevor Williams had two and the corner played his best game so far opposite Jordan Lucas. Ryan Keiser made another big play to seal the game with a pick of his own, and Adrian Amos came up with his fifth career interception. Freshman Grant Haley continues to make progress and earn more playing time and showed off his physical edge with a few big hits against Rutgers. UMass has some experience in its secondary where three players — corner Randall Jette and safeties Joe Colton and Trey Dudley-Giles — have all started at least 14 games. Jette is the unit’s playmaker. He’s got two picks this season with four passes broken up. Colton is second on the team with 35 tackles and is an active blitzer with 31/2 tackles for loss and a sack. Advantage: Penn State
James Franklin described his special teams as not positive or negative. The Nittany Lions need some more consistency in their return game, where Haley has emerged as the team’s primary kick returner. The punt return team also hasn’t been sparked yet and the Minutemen have kept opposing punt returners in check. Sam Ficken has worked on driving the ball better on kickoffs. Meanwhile, UMass has returned just two punts this season and is averaging 25 yards per kick return. Dudley-Giles has a 31-yard punt return, however. Ficken is 6-for-7, his only miss coming on a 34-yarder that was blocked by Rutgers. UMass’s Blake Lucas is 2-for-4 and has missed kicks of 47 and 22 yards. This game isn’t likely to come down to the kickers, however. Advantage: Push
The Minutemen are 2-28 in their last 30 games. They’ve shown little progress so far this season and their offense hasn’t done their defense many favors. UMass is holding onto the football an average of 23:29 per game, which ranks 126th out of 129 FBS teams. Meanwhile, the Minutemen are a miserable 16 of 43 on third down. The Nittany Lions haven’t been great in their first three games but have found ways to win, especially in Ireland and in New Jersey, with come-from-behind drives late. Advantage: Penn State