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No. 8 Penn State at Indiana: Game Preview

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At long last, let’s take a look at Penn State’s 2020 season opener in Bloomington.

Indiana v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Big Ten is back! Penn State gets things started with a road trip to face a dangerous Indiana team looking to build on its 8-5 campaign in 2019.

#8 Penn State (0-0) vs. Indiana (0-0)

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m., Stadium, Bloomington, IN

The Betting Line: Penn State -6

TV: FS1 - Aaron Goldsmith (play-by-play), Mark Helfrich (analyst)

Weather: It will be a comfortable day for football, with sunshine and highs in the mid-50s that will drop slightly into the evening.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 56-23, 7th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 80-38, 10th Year

VS. INDIANA: 6-0

Tom Allen:

INDIANA RECORD: 18-20

OVERALL RECORD: Same

VS. PENN STATE: 0-3

FUN FACTS

INDIANA OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

Those of you hoping for a relaxing start to the season may be in for a disappointment, as Indiana returns 19 starters from a promising 8-5 season, including three Maxwell Award nominees on offense - quarterback Michael Penix, running back Stevie Scott and wide receiver Whop Philyor.

Penix was 5-1 as a starter in 2019, completing 68.8 percent of passes with 10 touchdowns to four interceptions. Penix has excellent mobility and pocket presence, getting sacked just once in the six games he played a season ago. While he is capable of escaping the pocket and picking up yardage, it’s not typically part of the Hoosiers’ offensive scheme.

His biggest target is Philyor, who emerged as one of the nation’s best receivers as a junior with 70 catches and 1,002 receiving yards. He can be a frustrating player to watch when he faces your team, with a knack for finding ways to get open, and often making catches after it appears the play has broken down. He just somehow always seems to be open at any given time. Ty Fryfogle is another talented option, who has the height and strength to challenge the secondary. You may remember him from last season’s match-up with the Nittany Lions, where he went off for 131 receiving yards and a score.

Scott returns as the primary back after producing 1,056 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns last fall. He’s a bruiser at 6-2 231 lbs. who can wear down a defense and keep drives alive in short-yardage situations. He’s also surprisingly agile out of the backfield, and typically good for a few receptions a game.

Indiana returns plenty of experience in the trenches, and while they do an excellent job of protecting Penix, they will need to get the ground game going to give the Hoosiers a decent shot of an upset.

Penn State’s defensive line will look to find a more consistent rush in 2020, which is a distinct possibility with the amount of athleticism coming off the edges in Shaka Toney, Jayson Oweh and Adisa Isaac. While the departure of Micah Parsons certainly hurts, the linebacker corps could still be among the nation’s best. Keep an eye out on Brandon Smith as he takes over the starting gig at outside linebacker. Smith played sparingly a year ago, but the five-star prospect made his presence felt whenever he is on the field. Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa each take over starting roles as well after proving themselves as part of the rotation in 2019. In the secondary, Joey Porter Jr. was announced as a surprise starter at cornerback opposite veteran Tariq Castro-Fields. This indicates the coaching staff were impressed with his progress over the season to put their faith in the redshirt freshman.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. INDIANA DEFENSE

Who is ready for a new-look offense Penn State offense? Kirk Ciarrocca takes over as offensive coordinator following Ricky Rahne’s departure to become head coach at Old Dominion. There could be some wrinkles that have not been seen in years in Happy Valley, such as multiple tight end sets and - gasp - a quarterback under center with a fullback directly behind him. Ciarrocca also has a reputation for working wonders with wide receivers, something that would be more than welcome considering the recent lack of development at that position.

For the first time in a very long time, there is reason to be largely optimistic about the offensive line heading into the season. The Nittany Lions return four starters from last year’s unit that showed tremendous progress over the course of the year, with Mike Miranda earning a starting spot after gaining a wealth of experience as a key reserve the last two seasons.

Penn State also returns its signal-caller as Sean Clifford is set for year two as QB1. Clifford performed well, and often showed flashes of brilliance in just his first year as starter. If he can find consistency and improved rapport with new faces at receiver, he’s got a chance to rise up to the level of one of the nation’s best quarterbacks this season and beyond.

Speaking of which, Jahan Dotson returns for his junior season as the Nittany Lions sole returning experienced wideout. He will be joined in the starting lineup by redshirt junior Cam Sullivan-Brown, who has shown the ability to be a reliable target when healthy, and true freshman Parker Washington, a 5-10 playmaker who could become the breakout start of the Penn State offense. And don’t forget potential All-American Pat Freiermuth at tight end.

Unfortunately, Penn State will be without the services of star running back Journey Brown, who is out indefinitely while a potential heart issue is further examined. Noah Cain will start in his place after a spectacular true freshman season. Cain is a powerful, patient runner who can keep the chains moving with his downhill running style. Devyn Ford, a speedy true sophomore, will also receive carries. Ford has vast potential that could help him become yet another star in the Penn State backfield. Keep an eye out for true freshman Caziah Holmes as well, who will be donning #26 with similar playmaking ability as the last Nittany Lion running back to wear that number. He’s a special athlete who could quickly take the Big Ten by storm.

The Hoosiers defense is led by inside linebacker Micah McFadden, who was named defensive MVP of the team in 2019. He finished the season with 61 tackles, 10 TFLs and two interceptions. Indiana will also get a boost upfront from Stanford grad transfer Jovan Swann. The defensive tackle contributed 5.5 sacks and eight TFLs for the Cardinal last season. Cornerback Tiawan Mullen is a star-in-the-making after rising to become the Hoosier top cornerback as a true freshman.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Charles Campbell takes over placekicker duties for the Hoosiers after connecting on both attempts as a freshman - a 41 and 48-yarder. Punter Haydon Whitehead returns after a strong junior season where he averaged 42.5 yards per punt. The Aussie-style kicker has a powerful leg, but can lack consistency at times.

Jordan Stout takes over punting duties from four-year starter Blake Gillikin. Despite Gillikin’s record-setting success, there should be very little dropoff. Stout will continue handling kickoffs, while Jake Pinegar returns at placekicker after connecting on 11 of 12 attempts with a long of 47 yards in 2019.

The uber-speedy KJ Hamler is now in the NFL, but replacing him in the return game are running back Devyn Ford on kickoffs, and wide receiver Jahan Dotson on punt returns.

PREDICTION

Penn State-34, Indiana-24

Predictions for a season opener/early-season games have always been a crapshoot. That is exponentially compounded this year considering the lack of spring ball, several scheduling shuffles, recent departures, and the roughly 783,291 external factors that are impacting the lives of players and coaches. This just seems to be a year where chaos reigns supreme both on and off the field.

For these reasons, and the fact that Indiana plays well against ranked opponents at home, I expect a tight contest on Saturday. Indiana has a capable offense that will be difficult to shut down, and the Penn State offense may need a couple series or so to get off the ground. I’m expecting a tied game at halftime, with Penn State taking the lead in the third quarter and holding on to it, with a crucial fourth quarter clock-churning drive led by Cain.

Cain leads the way for the ground game with 90 yards and a score, while Ford and Holmes each pick up 50+ yards on the ground. Clifford starts off strong with 250 passing yards and two scoring strikes, going to Washington and Freiermuth.

On defense, Ellis Brooks matches his tackles to his jersey number with a team-leading 13 stops, while Jesse Luketa helps the cause with eight stops and a key interception. Antonio Shelton gets down and dirty in the trenches with three TFLs, while Shaka Toney continues tormenting teams from the state of Indiana with two sacks and a forced fumble.