If Penn State wants to finish in the top 10 and earn a spot in the Rose Bowl, it’ll have to win out — and that starts with beating Indiana on the road. Here are the key matchups to Saturday’s game that we think should go a long way in determining the winner.
Josh Moyer: Penn State QB Trace McSorley vs. Indiana pass-rush/secondary
When it came to stopping Saquon Barkley the last two seasons, no team was more successful than Indiana.
Barkley rushed a combined 53 times for 114 yards against the Hoosiers for an average of 2.15 yards per carry. That put most of the offense on the shoulders of Trace McSorley — who came through in a big way, throwing for more than 300 yards in each outing against IU.
It could be more of the same Saturday.
If the Nittany Lions are going to pick apart this defense, the bigger opportunity here is definitely through the air. Only two teams — UConn and Rice — have allowed more passing touchdowns than Indiana (18). Against Iowa last week, Indiana lost big in a 42-16 shellacking after Hawkeyes QB Nate Stanley passed for 320 yards and racked up the second-most touchdown passes in school history with six.
On the surface, that’s the fault of Indiana’s secondary — and it’s true; they haven’t played great against better competition. But the Hoosiers’ defensive struggles really start with a defensive line that can’t generate any pressure.
In the last two games, against Iowa and Ohio State, Indiana’s defense has amassed just two combined sacks and four quarterback pressures. Dwayne Haskins torched IU for more than 400 yards and another six scores.
IU coach Tom Allen has tried to increase the pressure by sending different blitzes — but they haven’t been all that successful either.
IU’s defense remains opportunistic and capable of causing a few turnovers. But the tradeoff has been allowing big plays. If Penn State’s offensive line can give McSorley time — and, based on the matchup, it should — then this game should go as McSorley does.
He’ll have time to throw, and the Indiana secondary doesn’t do great in one-on-one situations. After an off-game against Michigan State, this is McSorley’s chance at a little redemption.
John McGonigal: Indiana WR J-Shun Harris vs. Penn State CB Donovan Johnson
Indiana’s base offense is “11 personnel” — one running back, one tight end and three wideouts. The Hoosiers like to air it out, with quarterback Peyton Ramsey averaging 44.3 passing attempts through four Big Ten games, and their slot receiver, J-Shun Harris, will be a focal point of their attack.
Harris — a 5-foot-8, 170-pound redshirt junior — is Ramsey’s favorite target. He leads the Hoosiers with 24 receptions, all but one coming in Big Ten play.
Two weeks ago, Harris had a career-high eight catches against Ohio State, racking up 104 yards on the Buckeyes’ secondary. Six of his catches went for first downs, including a one-handed, 30-yard grab after an ankle-breaking double move. Three of his receptions were on slant patterns, which proved to be a problem for Penn State last week against Michigan State.
Hoosiers offensive coordinator Mike DeBord isn’t afraid to use Harris outside of the slot, either. At one point against Ohio State, the high school track and field star motioned into the backfield. He then beat the Buckeyes’ nickel corner for an eight-yard, first-down grab.
That being said, Penn State slot corner Donovan Johnson will have his hands full.
Now, if you’re looking at the Nittany Lions’ depth chart, you may be confused. John Reid is still listed as the Nittany Lions’ starting “Star,” or nickel cornerback. But Johnson has played a larger role this season as Reid — who hasn’t looked the same since returning from his 2017 season-ending knee injury — either missed games completely or took series off.
Reid will face Harris in coverage, but it’ll be intriguing to see how Johnson, a redshirt freshman, hangs with Indiana’s veteran receiver.
It’s also worth noting that Harris can do some damage on special teams, too. He leads the Big Ten and ranks No. 11 in the country with 12.5 yards per punt return. Against Ball State in Week 3, he took a punt 86 yards to the house for a touchdown.
Harris, who has suffered three ACL tears in his career, doesn’t look like he’s missed a step in 2018 — and the Nittany Lions know it.
“J-Shun Harris is a guy who, not only on offense, but also on special teams, has made a bunch of big plays,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “He’s challenging.”