The No. 20 Nittany Lions (6-3) take on Wisconsin (6-3) at noon Saturday in Happy Valley. Here are five things you should keep an eye on.
James Franklin joked that Penn State’s passers should throw the ball more to true freshman Jahan Dotson. “First downs are good,” the coach said with half-smile. First downs are good — and Dotson has provided them to a sputtering offense.
Dotson, who debuted at Indiana three weeks ago, has five catches. All of them have gone for first downs. He snagged one in Bloomington, two against Iowa and a pair last weekend at The Big House. One of them was a 15-yard, fourth-down snag behind his body that extended an eventual touchdown drive in Penn State’s win over the Hawkeyes. Another was an impressive 19-yard, toe-tap catch along the sidelines at Michigan.
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Dotson garnered praise in fall camp, but his absence early in the season puzzled some fans. For now, he fully understands one position, and that’s slot receiver, where he sits behind KJ Hamler on the depth chart. But the coaching staff wants the Nazareth native to learn more so he can own an expanded role in the offense. “It can give us the opportunity to get the best three guys on the field,” Franklin said.
“He’s a playmaker,” the coach added. “And I’m not talking about huge explosive plays. But he just consistently makes plays when the ball is thrown to him. That’s why we want to get him on the field.”
It might be hard to fathom given the final score, but the Nittany Lions were down only 14-0 with a minute to go in the third quarter of last Saturday’s 35-point drubbing at Michigan. Penn State’s defense kept them in the game.
Until it got worn down. The Wolverines ran 69 plays, 52 of which were runs, mostly with battering ram back Karan Higdon. Two weeks ago, Iowa ran 88 plays against the Nittany Lions. And a week before that, Indiana hit 100.
Penn State’s offense simply can not sustain drives, and the Nittany Lion defense is suffering as a result. This isn’t a recent issue, either. Brent Pry’s unit has faced 80.1 plays per game through nine weeks. No Power 5 team has seen more on a per game basis.
So, can Penn State hold up against Wisconsin? The Badgers feature Jonathan Taylor, the nation’s leading rusher, and they use him often. Taylor’s 208 carries are more than anyone in college football, and Wisconsin as a team averages 43.77 rushing attempts per game, fourth-most among Power 5 programs.
Penn State’s defense is going to be tested when the fourth quarter rolls around.
Powerless passing game
On the flip side, the Badgers don’t throw the ball well. At all.
That’s easy to see as Wisconsin ranks 110th in passing yards per game. But here are a couple more staggeringly bad Badger statistics:
- Wisconsin has had only one 100-yard receiver this season. A.J. Taylor had five catches for 134 yards against New Mexico. That’s it.
- The Badgers have completed just six passes of 30 yards or more. The only teams with fewer: Rutgers, San Diego State, Wyoming, Northern Illinois and UTSA. Even Army, Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern — all triple-option offenses — have aired it out more than the Badgers.
Switch up front?
In the 15-minute window of Penn State’s practice open to the media on Wednesday, there was a shakeup on the Nittany Lions’ offensive line. Ryan Bates — who has started all nine games this year at left tackle — was working on the right side. Meanwhile, Will Fries moved from right tackle to the blindside, with Chasz Wright running with the second-team.
Right tackle has been an issue for the Nittany Lions so far this year. Fries has given up 27 pressures and five sacks, which is the highest total in the Big Ten, per Pro Football Focus. Wright hasn’t necessarily performed well, either.
But perhaps moving Fries to the left side, where he looked comfortable filling in for an injured Bates last year, will help stabilize his play.
True freshman linebacker Micah Parsons has yet to start in 2018 — but he’s making an undeniable impact.
The five-star talent’s 51 tackles remains tied with Jan Johnson for the team lead. Parsons has yet to really get to the quarterback; he’s in a three-way tie for second with four hurries, but has only a half-sack on the stat sheet.
Still, Parsons — who never played linebacker before this season — is impressing.
“I think he’s got more comfortable, learned how to flow at the position, read lineman’s blocks,” Johnson said of the freshman. “I think that as he continues to keep his pad level down low, he’s gonna improve on getting knock backs and TFLs.”