Penn State Football

Breaking down the 2 key matchups to the Penn State-Kent State game

Penn State defensive tackle Kevin Givens reacts after tackling Pitt running back Qadree Ollison during a game against Pitt Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Heinz Field.
Penn State defensive tackle Kevin Givens reacts after tackling Pitt running back Qadree Ollison during a game against Pitt Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 at Heinz Field.

Penn State may be favored big against Kent State but, if it wants to win, it still needs to dominate its matchups. Here are the key matchups to Saturday’s game that we think fans should keep a closer eye on.

John McGonigal: Kent State’s tempo vs. Penn State’s front seven

Kent State head coach Sean Lewis played at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez — but his offense is the antithesis of old-school, Big Ten football. Penn State’s defensive linemen and linebackers better be ready for tempo, tempo and more tempo.

James Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference that Kent State is “probably the fastest tempo team we’ve seen since we’ve been here.” Franklin compared Lewis’ style to what Dino Babers is doing at Syracuse and what Art Briles used to do at Baylor: Spread it out, run zone read and let an athletic quarterback do his thing.

For Kent State, that’s Woody Barrett. Franklin called the former Under Armour All-American and Auburn transfer “a problem.” The 6-foot-2, 236-pounder accounted for 387 yards (270 passing, 117 rushing) and three touchdowns in Kent State’s near upset of Illinois in Week 1.

Franklin and his staff actually offered Barrett a scholarship before the dual-threat passer picked Auburn out of high school.

“He’s dynamic,” Franklin said of the former four-star prospect. “You see guys come through blitzing, and he stands in the pocket, they hit him, they bounce off, he keeps his eyes down the field, delivers the strike.”

That can be heartbreaking for pass rushers if they have their hands on their hips in between plays, catching their breath. In last week’s 54-14 blowout win over FCS program Howard, the Golden Flashes recorded 511 total yards, 355 of which were on the ground. And yet, Howard had more time of possession. That speaks to just how fast Kent State is running its offense.

The Nittany Lions’ front seven has to deal with Barrett and that tempo one week removed from allowing 214 rushing yards in the first half against Pitt. Even going back to the upset scare against Appalachian State, quarterback Zac Thomas accounted for 313 total yards and running back Jalin Moore slipped through the cracks for 88 yards and a score.

That season-opening showing was without Kevin Givens, and he’ll surely make an impact on Saturday. But the rest of Penn State’s front seven will need to be gap sound and resolute in their tackling to avoid another shaky performance.

Josh Moyer: Penn State ground game vs. Kent State front seven

Let’s not over-complicate things. The Nittany Lions boast the edge in every conceivable category, but this is one where it can especially take advantage. In the season opener, Illinois didn’t have much of a passing game against the Golden Flashes, but Kent State just couldn’t stop it on the ground — the Illini had 49 carries for 279 yards.

The field will almost certainly be wet Saturday afternoon and, although AccuWeather is just calling for clouds and sun now, there’s no telling if that will change. Establishing a running game should be easy, and it should be a priority. Remember the 52-0 blowout over Akron last season? Penn State averaged 7.3 yards per carry and racked up 247 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

Well, Kent State’s 3-4 run defense is even worse than Akron’s. The linebackers here are decent but, outside of the starting nose tackle, size is an issue. Kent State allowed 5.25 yards per carry last year and, against a better MAC team last season, Saquon Barkley had 14 carries for 172 yards.

Penn State’s Miles Sanders should once again go over 100 yards this game, and Mark Allen or Ricky Slade could also see some serious time. This game should be a snoozer, and the Nittany Lions’ running game should be a big reason why.