Again, Penn State is preparing for a home game.
And again, Penn State is preparing for it to be a soggy one.
According to the AccuWeather forecast (read on Thursday night), there is a 75 percent chance of rain in State College beginning at 11 a.m. through 1 p.m., with a high of 47 degrees and a wind chill that will make it feel like 40 degrees. The Nittany Lions kick off at noon against Army West Point.
If the forecast holds true, the game will be the third played in prodigious rain this season, and the third of four home games played in such conditions.
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Some players, like quarterback Christian Hackenberg, think that a good mental approach is key to overcoming games with poor conditions.
“Making sure you go out and try to do the same thing as if it was a dry game,” he said in Tuesday’s press conference. “You can’t let it affect you. Usually when you start thinking about it is when it goes south.”
Offensive lineman Brendan Mahon loves the rain. He said it “brings him back” to playing backyard-style when he was younger.
“It really is a good time,” he said on Wednesday morning. “A lot of the (offensive) line love playing in the rain, you know, getting down in the mud and that kind of thing. It really is just more fun for us.”
But receiver Saeed Blacknall, whose very livelihood depends on not letting a slippery ball slide through his hands, said it’s tough on players when conditions are poor. The team has had to adjust accordingly.
“Rain, and weather, and the temperature and stuff like that are things we can’t control,” he said Wednesday morning. “But we can control the things we do as far as focus…we get wet ball practice, especially this week…we do all these different things in practice to get ready, as far as the weather.”
Head coach James Franklin said on Tuesday that he was “praying we get rain all week long,” so the team could practice for what has been a dismal Saturday forecast. He got his wish, and the Nittany Lions stayed outdoors to practice.
And of course, on the field, there are ways for teams to beat poor weather.
The only problem is, those necessary tools might just be out of commission for Penn State when Army comes to town.
3 Keys to See
If conditions are poor, it makes sense for teams to amplify the run, instead of chucking a ball through rain and wind.
But Penn State’s top two running backs, true freshman Saquon Barkley and redshirt junior Akeel Lynch, were not seen at practice on Wednesday after getting hurt during the Nittany Lions’ win over San Diego State last week.
Barkley, who had sparked Penn State’s offense with his dominant juke-step-shimmy tackle-breaking style, rushed for 386 yards and three touchdowns and has a 22-yard receiving touchdown, appeared to tweak his ankle and limped off the sideline in the first half. His ankle was heavily wrapped, but he stood on the sideline for the remainder of the game testing out his legs.
Lynch, the starting back who is the “one” in the “1-2 punch” that propelled Penn State throughout the last three games, was hit in the knee by a falling defender’s helmet and had to be helped to the locker room by trainers after. He didn’t return to the field. He has 49 carries for 276 yards and two touchdowns this season. All other true Penn State running backs have not scored — though receivers Brandon Polk and DeAndre Thompkins have scored a touchdown apiece off jet sweep handoffs.
Mark Allen, who scored a receiving touchdown, his first-ever, last week after coming in for Lynch, appeared to be the featured back in what media saw at practice this week.
“Mark is probably more of our slash, make-you-miss type of running back,” said Franklin. “He’s very, very explosive. He’s very confident. The only thing that moves faster than his feet are his mouth.”
In the air, Hackenberg threw for 296 yards and three touchdowns against San Diego State. His top receivers, Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall (to whom the quarterback’s deepest passes of the year have gone, at 46 and 48 yards), are, according to the latter two, feeling confident.
But, with conditions as predicted, deep throws aren’t just unlikely — they’re insensible.
Army’s starting quarterback, Ahmad Bradshaw, is a dual-threat sophomore who expertly runs the Black Knights’ triple-option. Bradshaw and his offense put up a school-record 556 rushing yards in a 58-36 win over Eastern Michigan. The quarterback himself has 194 passing yards and three touchdowns alongside 341 rushing yards and four touchdowns this season.
However, Bradshaw left the Black Knights’ last game with an injury, and didn’t return. It is not certain whether he will start against Penn State. Still, Army has 14 players with starting experience returning to its offense, and a lot of discipline needed in a place as loud as Beaver Stadium.
“You’re talking about a group of young men and women at the service academy that are willing to die for something they believe in,” said Franklin. “And now, you take those same people and you put them on a team, and it’s that type of commitment, that type of sacrifice. You’d better be ready for a battle.”
The Black Knights’ triple option offense is not one that Penn State often comes across.
“I think the triple-option puts stress on everybody,” said Franklin. “It always does, not just because of the scheme that they run, but also the style of play and the fact that you only see it once every couple of years.”
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they have some intel.
Linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Brent Pry was the defensive coordinator at Georgia Southern when Army’s current head coach, Jeff Monken, was the head coach there. In practice every day, Pry worked against the triple option — experience, Franklin said, that has been valuable in Penn State’s current preparation for the tricky scheme.
“It’s one of those deals where you can’t have just one or two answers,” said Franklin. “You’ve got to have a couple different answers of how to defend the fullback dive, how to defend the quarterback, how to defend the pitch, and then how to defend their version of speed sweeps and things that they do where they motion and then toss the ball out to the guy on the edge.”
If plays and corresponding aren’t carefully calculated against a triple option, it’s very easy for players to over-commit and give up big plays in the air.
Luckily, Franklin expects to have starting safeties Jordan Lucas and Marcus Allen back this week, after Lucas didn’t dress out against San Diego State and Allen left the game with a shoulder injury after two snaps.
Both were seen practicing on Wednesday.
Additionally, Penn State’s defense ranks No. 1 in the nation with 18 sacks (seven from defensive end Carl Nassib himself) and No. 2 in the nation in tackles for loss with 40.
Penn State’s special teams were excellent against Buffalo two weeks ago, even earning punter Chris Gulla in-house player of the week honors, but were borderline abysmal against San Diego State.
“I probably got up here and bragged too much about how well the special teams were playing,” said Franklin on Tuesday. “And then we fumble a punt (the next game).”
The strength — and even the personnel — of the unit the Nittany Lions will see on the field this week is, after such inconsistency, frankly a mystery.
But returner Nick Scott, who has been a standout at the position, could very well shift over to help out with running back depth, and if he does, safety and returner Koa Farmer could see more reps.
Army’s special teams unit has allowed less than a yard per punt return on average (.80), which ranks No. 14 in the nation, and 20.80 yards per kick return.