One of the Big Four in the Big Ten, Penn State might be in a bit of a transitional year following the departures of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Miles Sanders, but they’re still to be feared as has been the norm in recent years.
The Nittany Lions have won the last five matchups between the two teams and 24 of the 25 overall meetings. Last season the Hoosiers just missed out on getting their second win in the series, losing 33-28 after a late touchdown put them within striking distance. That game aside these games have been pretty bad for IU. 2017 saw a 45-14 thumping in State College at the hands of Freak Of Nature Saquon Barkley, who returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and closed the game out by throwing a TD while up 24 points which is very normal, and the aforementioned McSorley.
Prior to 2018 the last time the Hoosiers had been within a score of the Nittany Lions at the end of a game was back in 2014. That game ended 13-7 and will forever be remembered as the game that inspired PUNTWEEK™️.
What to expect from the Nittany Lions
As previously mentioned, the Nittany Lions are in somewhat of a transition year, though that’s mostly on offense. McSorley had been The Man for them for what felt like a decade (a very fun to watch decade, mind you) and now they’ll have to replace him. Expect to see Sean Clifford under center for them as his main competition, Indianapolis’ own Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State (and won the job there), though redshirt freshman Will Levis is also in the mix.
There will also be a bit of a reset at running back. Barkley and Sanders have both moved on to the NFL, leaving Ricky Slade as the top returning rusher. He should be more than capable of carrying the load as a former five-star recruit and top all-purpose back in the recruiting class of 2018. Despite serving as a backup last season he still managed to put up 5.7 yards per carry and six touchdowns as a true freshman in the Big Ten, not bad.
On the defensive side of the ball Penn State returns quite a bit of their production last season including two of its top four defensive linemen, all three of its top linebackers and two of its top four defensive backs. That should help as the offense tries to get things figured out, especially early in the season.
Three Names to Watch
Sean Clifford, QB - Though it hasn’t been announced as of Friday, Clifford is expected to be the starting signal-caller heading into the season. Last season in spot work he managed to throw for 195 yards on 5-7 passing with a pair of touchdowns, including one on his first career passing attempt as well as a 95-yarder which set the school record for longest passing touchdown. That record had been set at 92 yards since 1919. Clifford isn’t quite McSorley, he’s more of a pro-style quarterback as opposed to a dual-threat, but there’s reason for optimism with him moving forward.
KJ Hamler, WR - Hamler is perhaps the biggest weapon Clifford will have at his disposal this season. He’s the top returning receiver for the Nittany Lions, having caught 42 passes for 716 yards and 4 touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman. He was also useful in the running game, carrying the ball four times for 44 yards and a touchdown. On top of that he was named a Freshman All-American as a kick returner. He was also a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, which is given annually to college football’s most versatile player. If there’s one player that seems primed to take home the Saquon Barkley Award for Destroying Indiana, it’s Hamler.
Yetur Gross-Matos, DE - Gross-Matos returns after being named First Team All-Big Ten last season and was overall a nuisance for opposing offenses last season. He registered 45 tackles as a sophomore, with 20 of them being behind the line of scrimmage and eight of them being sacks. Those were easily some of the best marks in the Big Ten as well as in the nation. On top of that he also forced a pair of fumbles. IU’s offensive line will have their hands full here and it could be a long day for whichever tackle is unfortunate enough to have to block him.
How IU Can Win
If the Hoosiers are going to take a win on the road against one of the Big Four, they’ll have to turn the game into an absolute grinder. Don’t let the Penn State offense make any big plays and limit guys like Hamler and Slade as much as possible. Turn this game into PUNTWEEK™ incarnate and maybe the Hoosiers have a chance if they can put together two or three scoring drives.
Counting on the defense to grind out a win feels like its right up Tom Allen’s alley, but this defense might not be up to the task and even if they are there are too many question marks with the offense to assume that they’ll be able to score 14 or 21 points on what could be a pretty solid Penn State defense, at least before garbage time. Despite the turnover on the PSU offense I don’t think this is one of those games you circle as a potential upset. S&P+ has the Nittany Lions as a 14.5-point favorite and that feels just about right, if the line ends up around there expecting the Hoosiers to cover wouldn’t be unreasonable.
Penn State 27, Indiana 14