SAN DIEGO STATE OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE: Running back Donnel Pumphrey is the name to remember heading into Saturday. Pumphrey might be the most underrated player in the nation as he racked up 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground as a sophomore in 2014. He's a small back at 5-9 and 180 lbs. but is extremely dangerous once he makes it to the edge. Similar to Saquon Barkley, he can take advantage of a small crease and turn it into major yardage. The defense will also need to keep an eye out for him out of the backfield as he currently leads the team with nine receptions. However, Pumphrey is off to a slow start, averaging 3.7 yards per carry against less-than-stellar (to put it nicely) competition. Basically, the focus of Penn State's defense will be to shut down Pumphrey come Saturday.
The Aztecs offense is led by senior quarterback Maxwell Smith, a dropback quarterback with the size and arm strength coveted by the NFL. However, Smith has been extremely ineffective thus far, completing just 47 percent of his passes. Smith has failed to connect on at least half of his passes against both San Diego and South Alabama, which is certainly a bad sign for the Aztecs passing game.
San Diego State has an experienced offensive line that looked to be a strength for the team heading into 2015, but have failed to come close to expectations. There is still time for the line to gel, but if there is no marked improvement on Saturday Penn State's defense should be able to shut down the Aztecs. Like the first three games, San Diego State will likely focus on stopping Anthony Zettel, which could lead to huge days for Carl Nassib and Austin Johnson.
SAN DIEGO STATE DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE: San Diego State employs a 3-3-5 alignment which is led by an experienced defensive line. However, similar to the offensive line, what was thought to be a strength hasn't quite panned out as expected. The defense has struggled in the past two weeks giving up 35 points to Cal and 34 to South Alabama (27 in regulation). They have also struggled against the pass, giving up 233.3 yards per game thus far into the season giving Christian Hackenberg an excellent opportunity to get the Nittany Lions aerial attack on track.
The Aztecs have two playmakers on defense who could make the Nittany Lions pay for any mental errors. Linebacker Calvin Munson has the quickness to make plays all over the field. He already has two pick-sixes on the season to go along with 3.5 negative hits and 1.5 sacks. Cornerback Damontae Kazee, who will likely line up across from Chris Godwin, has excellent cover skills and already has picked off three passes in the first three weeks. Either can create a big play off of a poor decision by Hackenberg.
Penn State will likely work to build upon its suddenly surging ground game with the two-headed monster of Akeel Lynch and Saquon Barkley. According to Franklin, he plans to continue rotating both backs each series. The ability to keep two talented running backs fresh has been a major asset. It was quite clear the Rutgers defense was gassed by the fourth quarter in week three while Lynch and Barkley appeared to be at full strength late in the game, something that could become a huge advantage once the wear and tear of the season starts to impact opposing defenses.
Believe it or not, the offensive line will attempt to not allow a sack for the third consecutive week. They still have a long ways to go but have shown vast improvement following a disastrous outing in week one. Take it for what it's worth, but Saeed Blacknall and Geno lewis moved their way up the weekly depth chart and could get more involved in the offense this week.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Penn State's special teams has shown a tremendous improvement from the past few seasons when the team was forced to rely on walk-ons and fatigued starters because of the scholarship restrictions. The kick units completely shut down Janarion Grant, one of the top return men in the country on Saturday, and Joey Julius' big leg provides a major advantage by not giving opponents much of an opportunity to return kickoffs.
Chris Gulla returned to the starting role at punter with a bang, blasting punts when he had room and showing precision by placing Rutgers within their own 10-yard line on multiple occasions. His hang time went a long ways toward preventing any return yardage from Grant. Gulla eventually lost the starting job in 2014 and will need to prove he can perform at a high level more consistently.
San Diego State has an excellent kicker in senior Danny Hageman, who possesses accuracy and a big leg. he drilled a 54-yard attempt in last week's overtime loss to South Alabama. The Aztecs also have a very talented punter in Tanner Blaine, who has already punted 20 times in three games and maintains a 43.4 yard average on the season. He can easily flip field position for the Aztecs and has punts of 63 and 60 yards in the young season.
Rashaad Penny is a dangerous return man with an average of 37.4 yards per kickoff return and a 97 yard touchdown to his credit. Julius will need to continue to put the ball out of the end zone to neutralize Penny's ability for big plays.
PENN STATE-31 SAN DIEGO STATE- 16 I was pretty nervous about this game heading into the season thinking the Aztecs matched-up well enough with the Nittany Lions to escape Beaver Stadium with a victory. But with San Diego State failing to meet expectations and the emergence of the Penn State running game, it's beginning to look like the men in blue and white are poised for a somewhat convincing win to end the first month of the season.
The Aztecs will move the ball enough for a few long field goals in the first half before the defense goes into lockdown mode. Penn State's offense shows a balanced attack as Geno Lewis shows flashes of his 2014 self and Barkley and Lynch each rack up touchdown runs of 20-plus yards.