Last season Temple gained 248 total yards against our Lions in Happy Valley, with 75 of those from one long pass TD. Aside from that one big play, the Owls tallied an anemic 173 total yards on 57 plays from scrimmage - 3.0 yards per play. That's...that's not too good.
What might they try against Bob Shoop's defense in 2015? It won't be runs between the tackles. Austin Johnson (320), Anthony Zettel (freak), Nyeem Wartman-White (240), and Marcus Allen (one biscuit shy of a linebacker) defend Penn State up the gut. All four have the look of future NFLers. Most, if not all, of college football will lose challenging the middle of this Lion defense. (Is Temple "most"? Yes. Temple is definitely "most".)
On the other hand, Temple head coach Matt Rhule must notice a bunch of new names peppering the edges of PSU's defensive depth chart. Carl Nassib (DE), Garrett Sickels (DE), Evan Schwan (DE), Jason Cabinda (WLB), Jordan Lucas (new SS), and Trevor Williams (new boundary CB) will be playing more snaps and/or new positions, each of which involves securing the edge and "staying home" on runs away from them. Expect Temple to test their discipline with read-option, jet sweeps, sprint outs, and some misdirection. Their performance on the edges will likely stand as the difference between a "solid" and "suffocating" defensive effort.
But the real questions - the ones we've been waiting eight months to be answered - focus on the offense. How much will the O-line improve? Can this 2015 offense run the football? What should we expect in game one, against a very experienced Temple defense?
Kill The Lights
Historically, your best advice is to set your expectations high when Penn State faces Temple. Very high. Most seasons since Gutenberg invented the printing press, you've been rewarded for those high expectations, witnessing beating after merciless beating of the Owls, typically by at least three touchdowns. While Film Room was a PSU undergrad, our Lions "played" the Owls thrice, winning all three "contests" by an average score of 53 to 8. You were back tailgating by halftime, unless you were related to the 4th team QB.
That's changed in the last half decade, of course, as Al Golden breathed life into a program that had been comatose for its initial century on the gridiron. True, they're still the same under-sized, under-recruited players from the 1990's. But, now fully self-aware, and aware of schematic alternatives, they won't line up in base defensive sets and take their whoopin' like men - because doing so would guarantee an "L" in the score sheet. No, friends. Now they slant and twist and stunt and blitz, and perform every type of gyration imaginable on defense in order to confuse their opponent - us - and compensate for their deficiency in raw talent.
As you well know, "confusion" plagued our 2014 Nittany Lion offense, sometimes, seemingly, without any provocation from the opponent. But, by week 10, when Penn State faced Temple, the new offense had coalesced just enough to provide a glimpse of a rushing attack. In fact, that November game saw PSU hand the ball to running backs 42 times for 244 yards on the ground - a tidy 5.81 yards per carry average. Akeel Lynch took the rock on 18 of those attempts, for 130 yards, 1 TD (with another called back for a phantom holding penalty), and a Ki-Jana Carter-like 7.2 yards per carry average.
The key that allowed PSU to run the dang ball that week will be the same thing Film Room looks for on Saturday. Namely, who wins the matchups on the edges?
Temple, despite returning a ton o' defensive starters, is shockingly small on the edges. Their two projected starting defensive ends weigh 232 and 225. None of their rostered DEs exceed 255lbs. And their largest WLB on the 2-deep is 5'11", 203lbs. In a world gone spread-'em-out, that's not such a bad thing. But John Donovan's rush offense is decidedly retro.
Take a look at the gif below. You'll see right guard Brian Gaia pull, and lead Akeel Lynch off tackle, in classic Power O. TE Kyle Carter gets a nice crack back on the WLB from his slot WR position. Jesse James, the "Y" TE, pins the Temple DE inside, while Gaia turns the corner, then locates and locks up Temple's Nate D. Smith, driving him 5-yards off the ball - a result known here at Film Room as "big boy pants". Lynch sells the dive before cutting to his left, and heading for lots of green grass.
That's winning the matchups on the edge. Here's another one. This is also "12" personnel - one back, two tight ends. James is the "Y" tight end, while Carter is the "H-Back" in motion. Carter's counter action off the snap is actually a diversion for the defense, to suck in the LBs and safeties to the center of the pit. The real action happens on the right edge. RT Andrew Nelson pins the undersized Temple DE and, with TE James, gives Bill Belton a corner, while WR DaeSean Hamilton (top of the gif) cracks back on the safety who mistakenly jumped inside because of Carter's misdirection.
Belton went for 35 yards on that play. It worked so well, John Donovan called the same play on the next snap, but flipped it to the wide side. Temple countered with a 34-front, but also dropped their SS into the box by the snap of the ball. Yes - the dreaded "8-man box", a bane of running games the world over for centuries.
It mattered not at all. Take note of what Donovan Smith did to the 230lb DE, and what James did to the 200lb LB, number 6. Big usually beats on small, particularly as the game creeps into the 3rd and 4th quarters. Akeel Lynch had only the safety to beat - the 8th man - and dished out a tasty stiff arm to break clear.
Hit The Lights
The TEs had a huge transition to make from Bill O'Brien's zone run scheme to John Donovan's power run scheme. When they blocked well last season - as they did against UMass, Temple, and Illinois - Penn State had a run game. Of course, when they didn't block well, Penn State had practically zero run game. That math doesn't figure to change this season, and particularly this week. So if you're looking for a key to our Lions' success (or lack of such) on the ground Saturday, let your eyes follow Mike Gesicki, Brent Wilkerson, and Kyle Carter instead of the football. How well they fare in their matchups on the edges will go a long way in deciding whether this Temple game is another close one, or a return towards the 1990's "classics" (where "classic" is defined as a inhumane, possibly even criminal, physical and psychological mauling).