Penn State Football: Intense Week Culminates with Chance to Take Down Top 25 Foe
Bill O’Brien had some extra pep in his voice during practice this week. There was more yelling than usual during the brief weekly glimpse of practice open to the media, and patience was at a premium at times, with up-downs a common means of corrective measure.
Penn State (3-2, 1-0 Big Ten) faces its first top 25 opponent of the season Saturday afternoon against Northwestern (5-0, 1-0). It hasn’t beaten a ranked opponent at home since knocking off Michigan State in the 2008 regular season finale, which sent PSU to the Rose Bowl. It also kickstarts a critical stretch of the season that includes a road date at Iowa on Oct. 20 for an 8 p.m. kick and a matchup with Urban Meyer and Ohio State on Oct. 27.
It starts Saturday, and Penn State, riding a three-game winning streak, must acknowledge the opponent is unlike any of the previous three. The Wildcats can move the ball, as seen during their 704-yard output last week against Indiana. They deploy Kain Colter at quarterback, scat back and wide receiver if they so choose, and it’s vital Penn State’s defense ID’s him pre-snap. Moreover, Northwestern’s offense is predicated on one-on-one matchups in space and challenging the defensive backs and linebackers to tackle in space.
Call it a measuring stick. A PSU victory heading into a bye week makes it hard to render it totally irrelevant in a year it’s ineligible for postseason play.
“It just gets us focused and everything,” running back Curtis Dukes said of the week’s charged practice setting. “We just need to be more consistent about everything.”
The junior from Denver is probably best described as an athlete. He threw up a 152.1 quarterback rating at Syracuse in the season opener and ran for 161 yards and four touchdowns last week against Indiana.
Freshmen receivers Geno Lewis and Malik Golden, as well as quarterback Shane McGregor all emulated Colter in practice this week, O’Brien said.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said it’s vital to know where Colter lines up each snap, but he’s not the only weapon for Northwester. Trevor Siemian will quarterback the Cats when Colter does not, and he completed almost 70 percent of his passes for more than 300 yards against the Hoosiers. Venric Mark, the small, junior tailback, has rushed for more than five yards a carry with a long of 47 this season. He’s also caught 13 passes for 83 yards.
“They make you defend the entire width of the football field,'' Roof said. "They stretch you horizontally and what that does is it doesn't allow you to gang up on people. It forces guys to make one-on-one plays in space.''
On the spot will be Penn State’s linebackers. With numbers so slim in the defensive backfield, Penn State does not employ a typical nickel package with an extra defensive back. What it does do is run its “road runner” package, which subs in Mike Hull at linebacker, shifts Adrian Amos to safety and bring in freshman Da’Quan Davis at cornerback.
"We're just trying to be as athletic as we can be and put our most athletic people out there,'' Roof said.
“What it does for us, too, is it allows us to rotate our linebackers.”
Kenney Frustrated by Rule Change
Alex Kenney hasn't gotten many chances to make an impact in the return game. A NCAA rule change moved the kickoff up to 35-yard line from the 30 and places the ball at the 25-yard line following touchbacks on kickoffs.
Kenney has just one kickoff return for 20 yards.
"It's very frustrating," he said.
As a guideline, the return men are told to take a knee if they catch the ball in the paint area of the end zone, O'Brien said.
Fortunately for Kenney, he's been able to make more of an impact as a wide receiver, already catching 12 passes for 129 yards.
Kenney, who is discussing the possibility of running short-sprint events for the school's indoor track and field team this winter, bounced back-and-forth in previous years between defensive back and receiver. He said he never considered as a defensive back since O'Brien arrived.
"It was very frustrating and tough because you didn't know where you were going to be," he said. "You were consistently getting moved back and forth. I'm really appreciative of having a home with this staff."
This and That
O’Brien’s weekly radio show usually is a good listen to fill in a few blanks in terms of personnel information, but it also is a fascinating look into how he interacts with the fan base. One such example occurred Thursday when O’Brien was asked what his favorite ice cream flavor is at the Creamery. Saturday is the arbitrary nine-month anniversary O’Brien’s hiring Jan. 6, and he still has not ever made it to the Creamery yet, he said.
Groans and gasps could be heard through the radio.
“Shoot me,” he quipped.
Donovan Smith had a heavy bandage wrapped around his right paw during Wednesday’s practice.
Just something to monitor Saturday. Smith worked with the first-team offensive line this week in practice.
GAME INFO (source: Penn State)
Dave Pasch (p-by-p), Brian Griese (analyst), Jenn Brown (sideline)
RADIO: Penn State Sports Network (60 stations):
Steve Jones (p-by-p), Jack Ham (analyst), Loren Crispell (sideline). Sirius: Ch. 113; XM: Ch. 191
Local: 93.7 FM & 1450 AM;
WEB: Gametracker & Audio at: GoPSUsports.com
SERIES: The Nittany Lions and Wildcats are meeting for the 16th time overall. Penn State leads the series, 4-3 (8 wins vacated). The teams are not scheduled to meet again until at least 2017.
PENN STATE RECORD: 3-2, 1st year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. NORTHWESTERN: First Meeting
NORTHWESTERN RECORD: 45-36, 7th year
OVERALL RECORD: same
VS. PENN STATE: 0-4