With Indiana football set to take on Penn State this weekend, we sat down with Brian Bennett (Indiana native!) of Black Shoe Diaries.
We had questions about the Nittany Lions and he had answers:
Outside of the Michigan game, Penn State is having a pretty solid season so far. What’s the ceiling for this team and what has it shown against the top talent at Michigan and Ohio State?
The end goal should be a 10-2 season and a NY6 Bowl Game. Penn State will be favorites in all of its November games. A year like that, though hollow because it will mean dropping their two biggest showdowns, would be a nice bounceback for the Lions. Penn State had an awful game plan and got manhandled against Michigan, while last week they outplayed the Buckeyes for much of the day. James Franklin spent time this week saying that Penn State needed to learn how to finish games strong. Well, I think there will be great disappointment if Penn State doesn’t finish this season strong.
A common criticism of Penn State is that this is more or less the same team year in and year out with marginal improvement. Any opinions on that?
In my mind, there have been three distinct eras of Penn State football under Franklin. His first couple years, they were undermanned and just scrambling every single week because of the scholarship restrictions that were still in place when he arrived. Then, there was a great stretch of football from 2016-2019 that any team in the league not named Ohio State would die to have - in the conference mix, in the national mix, three major bowl games in four years (with two wins and top 10 rankings). Since then, Penn State has been wildly streaky.
Going back to that first question, I think that a 4-0 finish would truly stabilize this team and give the impression that Penn State is improving both in terms of this season and in its general trend. My biggest criticism has been that the team, outside of 2016, has always looked sort of listless in the last three to four games of the year. So, it’s my hope that a relatively young (and talented) roster will push this month to show improvement. Again, this past week, Franklin noted how much better he feels the team has gotten in the past couple weeks despite the disappointing loss to Ohio State.
What has Sean Clifford shown this season as a quarterback? Strengths and weaknesses.
He’s been exactly who he’s been in his career. I feel like I’m copying and pasting an answer I gave to an Ohio State blog last week. But even within games, you’ll see his strengths - a clutch run, a perfect ball down the seam, a gritty play when everything seems against him. But, you’ll also see the bad - the overthrows, the inability to step up in the pocket, and the crucial turnovers that have haunted him in his biggest games (including early at Indiana in 2020). The huge question and storyline entering this week (and month) is how much prized 5-star No. 1 quarterback in the recruiting class Drew Allar will play in these final games? Many (most) Penn State fans are ready to turn the page and see Allar working with the No. 1’s and building some momentum for next year. However, Franklin has been fiercely loyal to Clifford and with an Orange Bowl trip (or the like) still out there, does he stay with a senior who has always been strong against mid to lower tier Big Ten teams?
Penn State usually has some absolute monster on defense. Which players, on both sides of the ball, should Indiana worry about?
Penn State’s secondary is a strength. Back in 2020, Joey Porter Jr. emerged as a redshirt freshman starter and sacked Michael Penix Jr. on a drive early in that game. Since that day, he’s been embedded as Penn State’s top corner and he’ll be an early round NFL draft pick in April. Ji’Ayir Brown is a safety who will be worth watching - he has eight interceptions since the start of last year - and he’ll also be on an NFL roster next year. Linebacker U has a new #11 emerging, too. Squint and freshman Abdul Carter looks a little like Micah Parsons or LaVar Arrington running around out there.
On offense, wide receiver Parker Washington had a monster game against Ohio State, going to toe-to-toe with Marvin Harrison Jr. in a game of can you top (catch) this. Also, freshmen running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen continue to impress. Those are guys that I’m sure Indiana will be gameplanning to stop.
Any predictions for this game?
History lesson here - as I’ve been following Penn State since the early 1990s. Memorial Stadium has always been a tricky place for the Lions to play, despite only losing there twice in the past 30 years. That started in 1994 when No. 1 Penn State led 35-14 only to hold on 35-29 when Indiana tacked on a couple of garbage time touchdowns in the closing seconds. Since then, weird things seem to happen and these games are always a little closer than the talent disparity would tend to indicate.
I think Saturday will be similar. There’s no doubt that Penn State will be in a letdown spot and Indiana has had an extra week to rest and prepare. I think the Lions win, but, much like your Michigan game, it’s close for the better part of three quarters. I picked 24-14 on our site.
You went basketball, so we will too. Thoughts on Micah Shrewsberry?
He’s an Indiana native - so even with those Purdue ties, I know you respect him. Heck, he even coached in your university system when he was at IU-South Bend.
I like him. There’s been a recruiting bump and he’s also seemed to find nice fits in the transfer portal. With that, I think the roster has a really nice mix of “because of COVID 27th year guys”, grad transfers, and high-ceiling freshmen.
I’m excited to see how this year begins. I don’t think Penn State challenges for a Big Ten title by any means, but, like last year, I think they can be a thorn in the side to some teams. More than that, I think the non-conference schedule is light enough where with 7-8 Big Ten wins, they should at least be assured of an NIT spot.