As Penn State prepares to finish its five-game homestand with a homecoming game against Big Ten opponent Indiana at noon on Saturday, the team has no idea which Hoosier quarterback will be calling signals.
Starter Nate Sudfeld, a senior, is week-to-week after tweaking his ankle in week four, and backup Zander Diamont, a sophomore, saw time against Ohio State, completing six passes on 14 attempts, and rushing for 98 yards and a 79-yard touchdown in Indiana’s narrow 34-27 loss last Saturday.
Head coach James Franklin mentioned at his Coaches Show on Thursday night that his “instinct” told him Sudfeld would see some time against the Nittany Lions on Saturday. The Hoosiers, who haven’t won a game in Beaver Stadium since Penn State entered the Big Ten, and, like Penn State, are 4-1 after some very narrow wins, would do well to be led by the senior quarterback.
Either way, Franklin knows not to overlook the improved Hoosiers, who gave Ohio State fits last week and are led by head coach Kevin Wilson (who is in his fifth year there). Franklin said of Indiana that “probably for the first time since (Wilson) has been there, they are big and physical on both fronts.”
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Penn State’s total offense ranks No. 116 in the FBS and has converted on just 30 percent of third downs. In passing, the offense, led by quarterback Christian Hackenberg, ranks No. 102 in the FBS with 856 yards through five games (just 6.79 yards per attempt). Hackenberg averages 13.4 completions per game on an average of 25.5 attempts per game.
This week, Franklin was heavily questioned about his offense (in which he’s said he’s taken a “greater role” after a season-opening loss to Temple) and said that the team is “managing” the game to minimize turnovers, among other issues (Penn State is among the nation’s best in turnover margin, and Hackenberg has thrown just two interceptions, both in week one).
“That first week, we had some real challenges that made it difficult to win, when you play the way we played,” he said on Tuesday. “So yeah, the way we’re calling the game is going to manage some of those issues and also gives us the ability to reduce plays like turnovers that I think have a major factor in the game.”
The game’s outcome will likely be decided by whether or not Penn State can muster an attack on the ground. True freshman running back Saquon Barkley, whose 373 net rushing yards account for 47.4 percent of Penn State’s total, and whose three rushing touchdowns make up 37 percent of the Nittany Lions’ total, was confirmed by Franklin to be taking reps in practice after being out with an apparent ankle injury since the second half against San Diego State.
Franklin said Thursday he still wasn’t sure that Barkley would be healthy enough for Saturday’s game against Indiana. Starting back Akeel Lynch is also out after suffering an injury against San Diego State, and was not seen at practice Wednesday.
Without the “1-2 punch” of the two backs, Penn State relies on a trio of freshmen in Marcus Allen, Nick Scott and Jonathan Thomas, who were fairly ineffective against Army last week, averaging a combined 3.2 yards per carry.
Indiana’s rushing defense ranks No. 71 in the country with 165.2 yards per game and eight total touchdowns allowed, so if either Barkley or the freshman trio can punch through it consistently enough, the game could be in the Nittany Lions’ favor. The Hoosiers will also likely load the box on defense to clog up options for Penn State’s offense — doing so brings more bodies to stop the run (effective for the Nittany Lions when Barkley is in), and can disguise potential pass rushers hoping to take down Hackenberg.
“I don’t know how they do it, but they have somewhere around 13 guys around the line of scrimmage every single play,” joked Franklin. “They must have gotten an NCAA waiver to be able to do that, but they’re going to force you to be aggressive.”
All week, Penn State has been preparing for the diversity Indiana offers at quarterback. Sudfeld is a traditional passer, with 5,583 career yards, 41 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound senior is poised and accurate, and generally stays in the pocket. Sudfeld also spent time with Hackenberg at the Manning Passing Academy in the offseason.
His backup, Zander Diamont (whose dad, by the way, is soap opera star Don Diamont), on the other hand, is a comfortable runner. Diamont filled in for Sudfeld in Indiana’s narrow loss to Ohio State last week, and ran for 98 yards on seven carries, with a 79-yard rushing touchdown.
“That’s where it becomes challenging, because you’ve got two completely different styles,” said Franklin on Tuesday.
Leading rusher Jordan Howard, a transfer from UAB, has racked up 709 yards and four touchdowns on 125 carries this season, but, like Sudfeld, hurt his ankle against Ohio State and is questionable for Saturday.
“The way we look at it a little bit is they both had … ankle injuries that didn’t allow them to come back in the second half, probably similar to our guys that have gone out and haven’t been able to come back the second half,” said Franklin. “Most of those guys haven’t been able to play the following week. We’ve got to prepare as if they are going to be there, but I would also think if they couldn’t come back in the second half, it’s going to be challenging for them to come back and be right this week.
“But you never know, Mr. Miyagi might be working for them.”
Penn State’s defense has been by far the most consistent unit on the field, led by a line that has helped rack up 21 sacks in five games (the third-best total in the nation), and is 15th in the nation in total defense, allowing just 284 yards per game.
Additionally, linebacker Brandon Bell and starting safety Marcus Allen, who were absent last week due to injury, were back actively practicing this week.
Penn State’s punting has been the most unsteady of any unit.
Starter Chris Gulla’s first two punts against Army last week combined for just 25 yards — one went 11 yards and out of bounds — and he’s averaging about 35 yards per punt. Gulla may not be seen this weekend, however, as he left the game last week after getting shaken up. Daniel Pasquariello, who the former replaced before the San Diego State game, finished the performance against Army.
“The last two years, the punting has had a significant impact on our team,” said Franklin. “The games that they have been inconsistent, (they) put our defense in tough spots and put our offense in tough spots.
“Yeah, they are more consistent in practice … Last year, I think a lot of that had to do with pressure … so now, it’s just experience and it’s maturity, and consistency is the biggest thing.”
Indiana’s punting, however, has suffered even worse than Penn State’s, with an average of just 33.25 yards per punt and only three touchbacks on 28 attempts this season.