1. The Nittany Lions have had an up-and-down season in James Franklin's first year on the job, winning their first four games then losing their next four. How do fans feel about James Franklin, two-thirds of the way through his first season in State College?
Devon: Penn State fans, at least the reasonable ones, understood that this would be a process. Given the impact of the sanctions just starting to hit hard, the transition to a new coaching staff, and some very serious losses along the offensive line, it was a given that Penn State would take a step back on the field. But Franklin's done a tremendous job recruiting and selling the program, and the future is bright. It's only the few message board loons who don't think James Franklin will lead Penn State to Big Ten championships. At least, once he replaces his offensive coordinator.
2. Christian Hackenberg is in his second year as the starting QB for Penn State. He came into the year with high expectations - has this been a disappointing season for him or is he developing as expected?
Devon: There's no doubt that this has been a disappointing year for Hack. Again, we knew that he'd take a step back in terms of numbers--he lost QB whisperer Bill O'Brien, who not only turned Matt McGloin into a servicable NFL starter but ran an offense perfectly suited for a big, strong, pro-style passer like Hackenberg. That alone would wreak havoc on a young quarterback's development. But throw in the fact that he lost his favorite target--the all-world Allen Robinson--that Penn State's been grooming 4, if not 5 new starters along the offensive line, that there's been absolutely no run game to speak of, and that new OC John Donovan has proven, if not utterly incompetent, then at least entirely incapable of making Hackenberg anything but a square peg in his round-hole of a spread, short-passing scheme, and you start to understand what's been going on in State College. The worst of it is in Hack's body language--he's been seen yelling at teammates on the sideline, cursing into his headset, and generally looking unenthused. This is rock bottom for him, though, and someone as incredibly talented can only improve. He's still capable of making perfect throws--and he will, on Saturday--but there will also be the freshmen mistakes we'd have hoped he'd grow out of by now.
3. Indiana beat Penn State last year, 44-24, to record their first ever win against the Nittany Lions. What went wrong in that game that PSU will need to fix this year?
Devon: What went wrong? Everything, mostly. Penn State couldn't establish any semblance of a run against a horrid run defense, they couldn't sustain drives, and the defense just collapsed in the second half. The first part of that sentence is going to be true Saturday--barring some sort of miracle (like the return of Donovan Smith and Miles Dieffenbach at LT and LG)--Penn State will attempt to run only so they can abandon it later, and they'll go 3-and-out more times than you can count. The difference is that this defense is for real. Tevin Coleman might be the best running back in the country, but this is a Penn State D that is just scary good in the front 7. They're as stout as they are disruptive, Mike Hull is a tackling machine, and even the defensive backs are good tacklers, should he break through the first line of defense. Given Zander Diamont's struggles, and Bob Shoop's predilection towards blitzing, I expect Penn State to go all-out to stop the run and dare the IU receivers to beat them. It's a strategy that's worked exceedingly well ever since the Northwestern game.
4. Penn State's has run for only 617 total yards this season, for an average for 2.3 YPC. What has accounted for the struggles on the ground this season?
Devon: So, the numbers are (only very slightly) skewed, because Christian Hackenberg's been on his ass so much. Sacks have accounted for almost 200 negative yards, which gets counted in that total. But that shouldn't read as a defense of the run game, because it's been putrid. A lot of that can be attributed to the inexperience of the offensive line, which has been marginally better in pass protection, but a lot of blame is due on John Donovan, who somehow hasn't recognized that slow-developing run plays aren't going to work with this line. The problem isn't the running backs--Zach Zwinak, before his injury, had run for nearly 2000 yards in the previous two seasons, and Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch are still a cromulent one-two duo. Lynch is the better back, a true one-cut runner, but for some reason hasn't gotten the playing time he's deserved. This will be a tire fire Saturday, as it's been all season.
5. I've never been to State College, but my friends who went to school there say it's a fun college town. If you only have 24 hours in State College, where would you tell people to go?
Devon: State College is a great college town--not unlike Bloomington, I'm sure. For the purposes of this hypothetical, I'll start at midnight and build up to a primetime game in Beaver Stadium. In PA, the bars close at 2 AM, so head down to Zeno's for an awesome craft beer selection and some live music. Get right to bed after last call, because you're going to wake up at 8 AM to hike Mount Nittany--it's got great views of the entire Nittany Valley and the Penn State campus. From there, head to the Waffle Shop downtown for brunch. Do some shopping downtown and walk around campus for a few hours, being sure to stop by the arboretum and the creamery for the best ice cream you'll ever have, then hit up Herwig's Austrian Bistro (where bacon is a condiment!) for an early dinner before heading to the tailgate lots. Get your buzz on, watch Penn State beat Ohio State, and celebrate over the famed Grilled Stickies at the 24-hour College Diner.
6. Quick question about the giant elephant in the room surrounding Penn State. This week marked three years since JoePa's firing and the start of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. With scholarships and bowl eligibility returning to the team, has a sense of normalcy returned to Happy Valley?
Devon: It's kind of weird, because while football-things are almost entirely back to normal, and nationally, things have calmed down significantly (in that most fans of opponents aren't on message boards calling us "Ped State"), there's still a large, vocal, segment of the fanbase that won't rest until Joe Paterno is vindicated, both by the school and the media--and that makes news like yesterday's, that the NCAA was bluffing when it imposed the sanctions--catch on like wildfire when there's really not a bombshell in there. But Bill O'Brien and James Franklin have done a good job restoring that normalcy to the football team, and if you head to a game at Beaver Stadium you wouldn't really be able to discern that there had been a scandal at all.
7. Basketball question: The Nittany Lions are picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 10, but do have a solid player in D.J. Newbill. Could Penn State surprise a few people this season and be a postseason sleeper?
Devon: I'm known around the Penn State basketball blogosphere as a pessimist, so take what I have to say with a grain of salt: there's no way Penn State makes the NCAA tournament. Best case scenario, we're an NIT bubble team. DJ Newbill is a terrific basketball player, probably one of the very best in the Big Ten. But the loss of Tim Frazier means he'll be Penn State's primary ball-handler, which was an experiment that failed miserably in Frazier's injury-plagued 2012-13 season. There's some talent around Newbill, but it's young and inexperienced, and full of guys who need to make that next leap, and it's not entirely clear that they can. This is a team that will get better as the year goes on, but given how deep the Big Ten is, there's just no room for error. I see 6 or 7 wins, a big upset or two, and a springboard into what should be a more competitive 2015.
8. Prediction time: Who wins on Saturday, and which team will break their month-long losing streak?
Devon: I'm going to have to go with Penn State, only because almost everything that could have gone wrong last week against Maryland did--seriously, Christian Hackenberg lost a fumble deep in Maryland territory when the ball slipped out of his hand--and we still only lost by 1. The defense is getting stronger every week, and if they can bottle up Tevin Coleman (at least as well as anyone's been able to), I can't see Zander Diamont beating them over the top. Let's say 20-17, Penn State, though it wouldn't surprise me if we lost--the special teams have been an unmitigated disaster, and the entire team's been fond of giving the ball to the other team. Maryland had scoring drives of 24, 2, and 17 yards last week. If Indiana gets that kind of field position consistently, I don't know that Penn State can keep pace.
Thanks again, Devon! The Hoosiers and Nittany Lions kick off from Memorial Stadium at noon, and the game will be shown on BTN.