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Week 2, Penn State: Opponent Overview

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NCAA Football: Idaho at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

General:

After a 38-10 win in the season opener against FCS opponent Robert Morris, the Buffalo Bulls are in for a tougher match-up this weekend against the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Nittany Lions are coming off a 79-7 win against their own FCS opponent, Idaho. The 72 point win was the largest season opening win for Penn State since 1926. Penn State opened the season as the #15 team in the AP Top 25, and with #11 Oregon losing and #9 Notre Dame yet to play, it’s possible that they slide up a couple more spots in the next poll that will be released prior to their match-up with Buffalo.

Buffalo is 1-2 all time against Penn State with the most recent match-up (2015) ending in a 27-14 loss for the Joe Licata led Bulls.

Offense:

Similarly to UB, Penn State had to deal with a lot of turnover on the offensive side of the ball in the offseason:

  • QB Trace McSorely graduated.
  • RB Miles Sanders entered the NFL Draft.
  • WR Juwan Johnson transferred to Oregon.
  • Presumed McSorely replacement QB Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State.
  • They return just 62 career starts on the offensive line (tied for 73rd in the country).

However, what Penn State has that Buffalo doesn’t is one of the top talent pipelines in the country. Over the past 4 years, Penn State recruiting classes have had an average national ranking of 13.25 per 247 Sports. This talent pipeline has buoyed Penn State despite the offensive talent losses, as displayed by their #15 national ranking, and ability to hang 79 points on Idaho in their season opener.

Drawing conclusions on Penn State’s offense from their season opener against Idaho is tricky due to the rotation of players in a blowout, 9 players carried the ball for the Nittany Lions with no players reaching double digit carries. However, the Nittany Lions were effective no matter who was carrying the ball, averaging 7.4 YPC on 45 carries. Running the ball has been a focal point of Penn State offenses in recent years with stud RBs Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, and Penn State fans hope that Ricky Slade is next in the lineage of great Penn State RBs.

Redshirt sophomore QB Sean Clifford will be making his first career start against an FBS team when the Bulls come to town on Saturday. Clifford went 14-23 for 280 yards and 2 TDs before coming out of the game just one drive into the second half. The Bulls’ secondary will be tasked with trying to slow down Clifford’s top target, junior WR K.J. Hamler who was Penn State’s top receiver last season, and went for 115 yards and 2 TDs on 4 catches last week. Hamler is a 5’9” playmaker with 4.43 speed, and Penn State may also look to get him involved in gadget plays, last week he had one carry for 16 yards.

Defense:

The defense of Penn State is likely to cause a lot of trouble for the Bulls, with a front seven littered with 4 and 5 star talents, it’s unlikely that the Bulls are able to replicate any semblance of the success that they had on the ground against Robert Morris. The Nittany Lions allowed just 4 yards on 28 carries last week against an outmatched Idaho team.

While it’s doubtful that the Bulls perform that poorly on the ground, they may not be able to get as much going through the air as Idaho did. Idaho only went 16-26 in the air for 141 yards against Penn State, which seems outstanding in contrast to the Bulls going only 5-10 for 69 yards against a weak Robert Morris defense, even by FCS standards. Coach Lance Leipold’s reluctance to go to the air with a comfortable lead against an FCS team, and a QB and receiving unit in need of experience is a major red flag for the season, and even more so against a Penn State team that will be able to stack the box and stuff the run.

Yetur Gross-Matos is the name to keep an eye on defensively for Penn State. The junior DE is projected as a first round draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and had 2.5 sacks last week to follow up his eight sacks and two forced fumbles last season.

Closing Thoughts:

It’s hard to imagine the Bulls pulling the upset in this one without having flashed the offensive upside last week that it would take to take down a top 15 team. If the defense can find ways to put pressure on Penn State’s inexperienced QB, and the offense can continue to find ways to move the ball on the ground they can potentially keep it close.