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Game Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

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Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info / How to Watch

Who? Penn State Nittany Lions (4-1, #20 S&P+) v. Indiana Hoosiers (4-1, #55 S&P+)

When? Saturday, 10/10, 12:00 PM, Happy Valley, Pennsylvania

Channel? ESPN2 / WatchESPN

Vegas? INDIANA +8

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After missing on a big upset bid my a slim margin, Indiana must now regroup and focus on the road ahead. Beating Ohio State was not necessary to achieve any realistic goals (though it probably extinguished any shot at a College Football Playoff bid) and, frankly, neither is beating Penn State. In my preseason forecast of seven wins, I included a loss to Penn State (and absolutely woeful Maryland), so it's not as if a bowl bid hangs in the balance on Saturday, necessarily.

But if Indiana football wants to be more, if it wants to emerge from basketball's shadow and successfully capture the full attention of its students and fans this autumn and in the autumns to come, these are the kind of games they must win. Any evaluation of Penn State ranges from "not good" to "kind of fine" depending on what data you use. S&P+, for example, adores the Nittany Lions, but a look at their standard résumé leaves an awful lot to be desired. If the Hoosiers are aiming for a truly magical season, the kind that sees them plow past the 6-7 win plateau that they've longed for, and into the realm of 8-9 wins and beyond, it can't happen without wins like these.

Indiana took one step forward when they defeated Wake Forest on the road, but Penn State presents a much tougher challenge. By the S&P+ rankings, the Nittany Lions are the best team Indiana has faced so far, and we know the atmosphere in Happy Valley will be a tad bit more charged than that rainy day in Winston-Salem.

PENN STATE: (#20 S&P+, #57 Offense, #16 Defense)

PSU is a tough nut to crack in the early going, loved by the computers but failing the eye test. Maybe not failing, necessarily, but certainly avoiding the eye test. After dropping their opening game on the road to Temple 10-27, Penn State has won four straight, all at home, all to teams ranked 91st or lower. Credit to the Nittany Lions, as they had won convincingly over these hapless opponents until struggling with Army last week.

Christian Hackenberg remains the trigger man for Penn State, and is having a rather pedestrian season for a guy that seems to get a lot of draft hype. He has 824 yards, along with 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions with a completion rate just under 53%. His year is representative of the offense as a whole, which is one of the most inefficient in the country and currently getting by on its explosiveness in the run game and excellent special teams (2nd in average field position).

By "explosiveness" I mean SBN's own Bill Connelly's measurement of how long a successful play is. Penn State is near the bottom in both passing and rushing success rate, meaning they struggle to get plays that get 50% of the yardage needed on 1st down, 70% of the yardage needed on 2nd down, and 100% of the yardage needed on 3rd / 4th down. However, when they do succeed, they're doing so with big plays. Couple that with starting every drive close to the 40 yard line on average, and you can see how they've been able to skirt by to this point.

If you're thinking about Ezekiel Elliot at this point, I don't blame you. Ohio State proved that explosive plays can cover a lot of warts. Without his highlight reel touchdown runs of 55, 65, and 75 yards, Indiana held the best running back in the Big Ten to 79 yards on 20 carries with their best defensive lineman sitting the game out on indefinite suspension. Make no mistake, those runs still happened, and highlight how important explosiveness is to scoring points and how it can render a lot of other great efforts moot. Look at the last meeting between Indiana and Penn State (actually don't, it was a terrible game) but Indiana played really well on defense except for surrendering a 92-yard touchdown run that proved to be the winning margin in a 13-7 affair.

One of Penn State's most explosive players, Saquon Barkley, missed the Army game with an injury. James Franklin mentioned that he hoped to have his freshman running back on the field against Indiana but it is far from a certainty. Barkley is averaging nearly 9 yards per carry and has been Penn State's best runner in the second level and open field.

On defense, Penn State has all the appearances of a monster unit. They're forcing opponents into inefficient, non-explosive football that gives their middling offense unit a larger margin of error to hit the big plays they've needed to succeed. Granted, this outfit hasn't seen anything close to the offense Indiana is bringing in (assuming Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard are 100%) but there's nothing to suggest they won't be up to the task.

They're slightly better defending the pass (10th) than the ground game (30th), but far above average in both, which profiles similarly to Ohio State, who Indiana struggled to sustain drives against.

THE HOOSIERS: (#55 S&P+, #17 Offense, #96 Defense)

For the Hoosiers, it all hinges on the health of their two most important players: Nate Sudfeld and Jordan Howard were both listed atop this week's two-deep depth chart and did not miss any practices after leaving they both left the game with ankle injuries against the Buckeyes. It would seem they're going to play but it remains to be seen how much the injuries hamper them.

While Howard doesn't have the open-field prowess or speed of Tevin Coleman, his ability to keep the Hoosiers on schedule is unmatched. Preferring to use his size and strength to plow through defenders behind an excellent offensive line, I worry less about his ankle hampering his speed as I do his ability drive through contact. Indiana's run game has relied much more on its offensive line and powering through defenders than making people miss and accelerating into the second level. In fact, Indiana is one of the top teams in the country when it comes to 3rd or 4th down and less than 2 yards, or on the goal line. Which helps offset the running game's lack of explosion.

Sudfeld's throws seemed to worsen as the game went on before he eventually got his foot caught in the turf and left the game entirely, aggravating the ankle injury he suffered against Wake Forest. Combine all that with the ankle injury Ricky Jones is currently playing on and Indiana's three best offensive skill players have three good ankles between them.

Defensively, Indiana should be proud of the effort they put forth against the Buckeyes, and a similar outing against Penn State could very well get the job done. Hackenberg doesn't have the escapability of Cardale Jones, and a pass rush that often got very close to bringing down the Ohio State signal caller should have an easier time finishing such efforts against the slower, smaller Hackenberg.

You can't expect Indiana to execute every down perfectly, but you would hope the defensive lapses don't all lead to scores like they seemed to do in the last game. The key to beating Penn State is to make them continually execute precision plays, any busted coverage or missed assignment that leads to a touchdown has let them off the hook. I would expect Indiana to come out with some pretty conservative looks and force Hackenberg and company to string together drives while they keep the ball in front of them.

THE GAME

This is an exciting game, in theory, because I have absolutely no idea what to expect from Indiana or Penn State. Ultimately, I don't think the Nittany Lions will be able to keep up on offense even with excellent defense. Call it 23-17, Hoosiers, but no combination of scores would surprise me.