Penn State Football

Penn State struggled against Indiana’s run defense the last 2 years. Will 2018 be different?

Franklin talks about Indiana’s defense specific plans

Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about the approach of Indiana's defense.
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Penn State football coach James Franklin talks about the approach of Indiana's defense.

Connor McGovern knows Penn State’s ground game is in for a challenge this weekend — but, despite his past experiences with Indiana, the offensive lineman sounded confident.

Even when reminded Tom Allen’s IU defense held Saquon Barkley to less than 60 yards and three yards a carry each of the last two meetings, McGovern brushed it off. He knows what this offense is capable of.

“I think no matter what look they give us, we’ll be able to run the ball any time during the game,” he said.

That’s a strong statement considering the recent history. In 2016, in Allen’s first season with Indiana as the defensive coordinator, Barkley rushed 33 times for 58 yards. Last year the No. 2 overall NFL draft pick finished with 56 yards on 20 carries.

So why will 2018 with Miles Sanders be any different? Let’s break it down:

Much-improved Penn State OL

The Hoosiers utilize a variety of blitzes and fronts, so much that an inexperienced offensive line can get confused in a hurry and let a blitzer run free. Indiana tends to stunt a lot while changing personnel, and that can add to miscommunication along the line.

Well, that miscommunication is not really an issue anymore.

The Nittany Lions returned four starters on the line from last season. And, if there’s one area where Penn State made the most strides, McGovern said it was the communication department.

“I definitely think in our communication the past years, that kind of had been slacking,” McGovern said. “This year, most of us have played together for so long, it’s just more natural and a lot more comfortable with each other.”

McGovern felt the line really came together in Week 2 against Pitt. Since then, only six of Sanders’ 69 carries have resulted in a loss. And four of those losses came against Ohio State.

“I also think that’s an area where Ricky is doing a really good job,” coach James Franklin added. “There’s not too many plays where the ball is being snapped and you’ve got a free blitzer coming off the edge as soon as we’re handing the ball off.”

Miles Sanders’ running style

If there was ever a knock on Barkley — and it is nitpicking — it’s that the running back sometimes pulled a Barry Sanders, dancing a little bit in the backfield in exchange for some SportsCenter-worthy highlights.

Miles Sanders is much more north-south and hits the hole harder. He may not be as explosive as Barkley — is anyone? — but his running style has complemented the offensive line well. Through six games so far this season, he already has 700 yards and is averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

By comparison, Barkley’s best numbers at this point of the season were last year when he had 649 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt.

“Miles Sanders obviously has big shoes to fill, and I think he’s doing a great job,” wideout Mac Hippenhammer said earlier this week. “I think he’s the best running back in college football.”

Sanders’ 162-yard rushing performance against Michigan State, which remains the nation’s No. 1-ranked rush defense, proved that the Nittany Lions can run against anyone. At this pace, Sanders should be first-team all-conference alongside Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor.

“Saquon is a phenomenal player, but Miles in his own right is a great football player, too,” McGovern added, “and he’s finally being able to show that.”

Declining Indiana defense

Over the past two years, Indiana was able to neutralize Penn State’s generational back with a variety of blitzes. Allen loves to apply pressure — but he just doesn’t have the personnel for success this season.

In other words, after losing eight defensive starters from last season, he’s still sending extra blitzers — but his defense just isn’t getting there. That’s especially an issue in pass coverage, but it’s also impacted the run. Indiana is allowing almost a half-yard more per carry, on average, now compared to 2016. (It allowed 3.76 yards per carry in 2016, 3.87 yards in 2017 and 4.25 yards this season.)

Last year’s starting defensive ends — who combined for 14 tackles for loss — are both gone, and senior defensive tackle Jacob Robinson missed several games already due to a leg injury. The Hoosiers are on pace to reach 69 tackles for loss this season. Last year, they had 87.

And it’s not as if Indiana has a lot of other options. “Don’t have unlimited depth to be able to make a bunch of changes,” Allen acknowledged Monday.

Franklin praised Allen on Tuesday for his defensive gameplans. Most teams, he said, tend to tweak their base defense — but Allen has a plan that changes every week. It routinely centers around stopping the offense’s biggest two or three tendencies.

In the past, that was Barkley running the ball. If Allen chooses to focus on Sanders again, however, Penn State promises it’ll be ready.

“The one thing that makes them different from some teams is they’re physical,” Penn State tight end Nick Bowers said Wednesday. “And we’re going to be physical up front and have some holes ready for Miles. That’s the big thing.”