INDIANA OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE Indiana has what is known as a "functioning offense," meaning they move the ball toward the appropriate end zone in a manner that allows them to accumulate points (many readers may need this refresher). Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, the status of their key personnel is unknown heading into Saturday. Indiana's two main playmakers, quarterback Nate Sudfeld and running back Jordan Howard, suffered injuries against Ohio State and are both listed as "day-to-day," meaning they may or may not be in action on Saturday.
Sudfeld is one of the most efficient and consistent quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He is extremely accurate and rarely makes mistakes, and makes the smart decisions that keep the chains moving. On the season, Sudfeld is completing just under 60 percent of his passes (a negatively-skewed number after a 10 for 21 outing while playing injured against Ohio State) while throwing seven touchdowns to just one interception. He's in his third year as a full-time starter, and plays just like the experienced senior that he is.
If Sudfeld isn't ready to go on Saturday, sophomore and Hoosier folk legend Zander Diamont will start in his place. Diamont got the nod against Penn State last season following Sudfeld's season-ending shoulder injury, and played like an athletic yet raw true freshman who needed more development to be an effective signal-caller. In relief action against the Buckeyes, Diamont showed flashes of his progression, going six of 14 for 76 yards that included a handful of clutch throws in the Hoosiers' near-upset. However, Diamont is extremely gifted and can strike at any time on the ground- as witnessed by his 79-yard untouched touchdown scamper to put the Hoosiers in striking range of the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter.
Howard is a UAB transfer who quickly took the reigns from former Tevin Coleman after he moved on to the NFL after a Heisman-worthy 2014 season. Howard is an all-purpose back who can pick up chunks of yardage by running past or through opposing defenses. Prior to his injury against Ohio State, he was the nations' leading rusher and already has 709 yards and four touchdowns on the season. He can also do some damage out of the backfield, catching eight balls for 84 yards in the first five weeks. Backing up Howard is sophomore Devine Redding, a smaller back who can strike quickly when presented with an opening. He has contributed 282 yards and five touchdowns on the ground for the Hoosiers this season.
The Hoosiers also claim one of the Big Ten's best receiver in Ricky Jones. Jones entered the season with only four receptions in his first two years of eligibility, and has enjoyed a 2012 Allen Robinson-type explosion to become one of the nation's most dangerous receivers in his junior season. He currently has 21 receptions for 446 yards and three touchdowns, with an incredible average of 21.2 yards per catch. Jones is a small and speedy receiver with outstanding hands who excels at getting open (think of a slightly more explosive Jordan Norwood). Sophomore Simmie Cobbs, Jr. is another excellent target who can use his size to create mismatches, especially in man coverage. Cobbs can make a defense pay for focusing too much on limiting Jones' productivity.
Indiana's offensive line is a well-rounded unit who has done an excellent job of protecting the quarterbacks while also opening up running lanes. The match-up of Indiana's line and Penn State's dominant front four should be the most interesting match-up of the game.
Brandon Bell is expected to miss another week, which is bad news for Penn State against an offense like the Hoosiers. While Jason Cabinda and Troy Reeder have been exceptional considering their limited experience, the Nittany Lions defense is much better against the run with Bell's outstanding football instincts in the game.
INDIANA DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE For years, Indiana was known for its explosive offense and porous defense that couldn't hold their own no matter how many points the Hoosiers produced. While the defense still has plenty of room for improvement, the trend that haunted Indiana for years (and several regime shifts) is slowly beginning to evolve.
The Hoosiers have shifted to a 4-3 alignment after its experiment with the 3-4 didn't quite pan out in 2014. The switch has allowed Nick Mangieri, likely Indiana's best player on defense, to switch back to his natural position of defensive end where he has already collected 24 tackles, five negative hits, five sacks, three pass breakups, two forced fumble and a fumble recovery in the first five weeks of the season. He could easily make life very difficult for Penn State's offensive line and Christian Hackenberg. While the line has done a better job of eliminating sacks, they seem to be unable to hold off defenders and allow Hackenberg to get comfortable in the pocket.
The biggest key to this game for Penn State's offense has to be the health of Saquon Barkley. As any Nittany Lions fan is well aware, Penn State's offense is completely different with Barkley's game-breaking ability. With Akeel Lynch clearly not ready to return, Penn State will have to rely on the three-headed redshirt freshmen backfield of Mark Allen, Nick Scott and Jonathan Thomas. Each bring a unique skillset to the table, but each seem to be another year or two away from being a full-time back.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Hoosiers have one of the best kickers in the business in Griffin Oakes. If the game comes down to a late field goal, they are in very good hands. Senior Erich Toth does not boast the most powerful leg, but is a model of consistency with a 41-yard per punt average in 2015. Receiver Mitchell Paige and running back Devonte Williams are dangerous return men who can make Penn State's kick units pay if they are unable to stay in their lanes- a disturbing trend for the Nittany Lions for the past few weeks.
Joey Julius is continuing to prove he's more than just a big leg by showing precision on a variety of field goal attempts. He needs to become more consistent with kickoffs to keep putting them out of the end zone on a regular basis to help a struggling kickoff unit.
INDIANA-24 PENN STATE-17 The prediction for this game could easily be a flowchart that includes "If Saquon Barkley/Jordan Howard/Nate Sudfeld play..." and every combination of each. On top of the injury bug that hit Indiana especially hard last week, there are plenty of intangibles that could be a factor. The Hoosiers are coming off a heartbreaking loss to the top-ranked, national champion Buckeyes, which would have been the biggest victory in school history and a paradigm-shifting event for the program had a few plays went differently. It's possible that the air has been sucked out of the Hoosiers and they come out completely flat on Saturday. Regardless of the culture of the team, it will be nearly impossible for Indiana to match the intensity they displayed against the Buckeyes for consecutive weeks. On top of that, Penn State was able to heavily rotate and rest many players despite a close call against Army.
For the the aforementioned reasons, I want to say that Penn State shouldn't have much trouble coming out on top. However, it appears that Indiana is just a much better and well-rounded team at this point in time (pinches self to make sure this is real life- it is).
The Nittany Lions take an initial lead, but the lack of movement on offense eventually wears down a shorthanded defense, and Indiana's playmakers strike with a few big plays down the stretch that lead to a very unhappy homecoming for Penn State.