Bill DiFilippo is an associate editor at Uproxx Sports. He’s also a contributing editor/podcaster at Roar Lions Roar, a Penn State alumnus and a friend of the site. Give him a follow on Twitter @billdifilippo.
Crimson Quarry: To kick things off how are things feeling over there in Happy Valley? Is there some sort of deflation that comes with the first loss of the season? Some kind of rekindled sense of urgency to go out and win?
Bill DiFilippo: There’s a sense of deflation for sure. The way that Penn State lost — the defense couldn’t stop the pass, the offense fell apart in the red zone, it coming to a Minnesota team that everyone thought was a product of a weak schedule — really stung. The team still controls its own destiny, and it can still win the Big Ten and make the College Football Playoff, but this has always been dependent on going into Columbus and beating Ohio State. Following the Minnesota loss, I don’t think anyone has much faith that will happen, although admittedly, I think most people weren’t optimistic heading in, anyway. Still, there was a school of thought that if they took care of business and kept it close in Columbus, they could possibly sneak into the four spot in the Playoff. That’s not the case anymore, and now, they may not even make a New Year’s 6 bowl.
As for what this means for this week, in each of the last two seasons, Penn State has lost an emotional game (both times to Ohio State), then the following week, came out and looked flat and lost (both times to Michigan State). I think there’s a bit of a sense of dread that this could be a “once is a chance, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern” situation, although admittedly, that might be me projecting out the anxieties I have regarding this game on the fanbase. Still, if that happens this week, they’re going to lose three games in a row (Rutger closes the season, so they’ll win their last game) and a year that had so much promise will end with a trip to some mid-level bowl game and, potentially, a second straight 9-4 campaign. For a program that wants to compete for Big Ten championships, that is not good enough.
CQ: It seemed like Minnesota put together a pretty good gameplan last week, utilizing the RPO and attacking the secondary to move the ball pretty effectively. Do you think that could be a viable plan of attack for the Hoosiers?
BD: I think Indiana’s offensive staff is going to watch the game tape from last week and start salivating. Running the ball will still be tough for the Hoosiers — despite their success RPOing Penn State to death, Minnesota’s rushing success rate was 31 percent, and the Nittany Lion defense has been outstanding against the run all year. While I think Stevie Scott is a stud and an awfully hard back to take down, Penn State should be able to keep him in check.
Having said that, Penn State’s defense has been susceptible to getting picked apart when opponents are able to get the ball out quickly all year, which is what Minnesota did super well. The Gophers had a passing success rate of 67 percent and Tanner Morgan was sacked once. Morgan is better than Peyton Ramsey, but Ramsey’s ability to get the ball out quickly and spread it around accurately is going to be a problem. Additionally, while I think Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman would be the Nos. 1 and 2 options at Indiana, the Hoosiers’ bevy of pretty good pass catchers will be an issue. It’d certainly help if the Nittany Lion pass rush — which has looked surprisingly weak for much of this year — could kick into gear.
CQ: The PSU offense has been pretty good this season, currently sitting at No. 8 in the SP+ offensive rankings. What, if anything, can the Hoosiers do to slow down Sean Clifford & Co. this weekend?
BD: For how good his high points have been this year, Sean Clifford’s shown a tendency to do a few less than stellar things. He locks onto KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth (admittedly not bad ideas since they’re excellent), he hasn’t quite gotten down knowing when to keep the ball and when to hand it off on RPOs, and the biggest one of them all, he can get sped up and become his own worst enemy. Still, Clifford is still quite good, and Indiana will need to hit him, confuse him with stuff before and after the snap, and take Hamler/Freiermuth out of the game. This is very hard, as evidenced by the fact they’ve won eight games and gained 500+ yards of offense in the one they lost.
The passing attack has its top-two guys, but they’ve been desperate for third and fourth options to emerge. Jahan Dotson has had some moments, Nick Bowers has been ok, and Justin Shorter was the No. 1 receiver recruit in the class of 2018, but none of them have really established themselves as a reliable, consistent third option. In the rushing game, if talented freshman back Noah Cain is healthy, he’ll bring power and decisiveness that’ll be a problem. If not, Journey Brown — a burner who has turned into a nice, well-rounded back — had a really good game against Minnesota, while Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford will get snaps. Still, if Cain is out, Penn State isn’t quite as dangerous between the tackles.
CQ: Can you see if KJ Hamler has any interest in going apple picking on Saturday?
BD: The last time you guys tried this bit, the Penn State player you teased housed the opening kickoff. KJ Hamler is Penn State’s kick returner. Please, continue. I dare you, cowards.
CQ: Seriously though that dude rules. How fun has it been to watch him play?
BD: A joy. More than his speed, more than his agility, more than his ability to miraculously maneuver his way out of being surrounded by three defensive players, KJ plays football with a sense of joy that you don’t see all that often. Football is more fun when he is playing it, and since I think (and this is pure speculation) he is gone after this year — being 5’9 and 176 pounds means you’re always one hit away from your career being over, so go get paid ASAP — I’m enjoying it for the final few games of the year. Go find two plays: His 93-yard touchdown against Ohio State last year, and his touchdown against Maryland this year where he juked a few dudes straight to hell. He’s special.
(We’ve located those plays, here they are for your viewing pleasure)
CQ: How are you feeling about Saturday’s game? Any predictions?
BD: Not too great, but still more optimistic than I was heading into the Michigan State games each of the last two years. Again, while I believe Indiana’s offensive gameplan will look similar to Minnesota’s, the Gophers scored seven points in the second half, had a success rate of 21 percent in the fourth quarter, and were fortunate that Penn State uncharacteristically turned the ball over three times. If the Nittany Lions figured some stuff out in that second half, it could bode poorly for the Hoosiers. And while SP+ likes Indiana’s defense, and I respect the hell out of Tom Allen’s ability to coach up that side of the ball, they’ve been a bit leaky on that side on the road in conference play, and Penn State’s offense is better than Michigan State’s, Maryland’s, and Nebraska’s.
Vegas says Penn State by 14, which is a touch high for me with a team as good and as confident as IU. Let’s go Penn State 35, Indiana 24, in a game that isn’t quite as comfortable as a two-score margin might indicate.