STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Penn State has already won big games in marquee environments, using big plays and a stingy defense to do so.
None of the No. 4 Nittany Lions’ victories has left the team’s biggest players satisfied, however. The 300-pounders up front are eager to get another shot when Indiana (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday night.
“We focused on our mission for this week, which is physicality,” right tackle Caedan Wallace said. “It’s collective, the front seven and the running backs. We’re going to improve this week. We’re going to run the ball.”
The Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0) know a run to their first College Football Playoff appearance won’t be possible unless they can.
Even with a 48-carry, 240-yard effort against Ball State, the Nittany Lions are ranked 111th in rushing offense so far. While they’ve settled in with a strong starting five — tackles Wallace and Rasheed Walker, guards Juice Scruggs and Eric Wilson centered by Mike Miranda — the group hasn’t yet played with the mindset that position coach Phil Trautwein wants.
The team’s offensive line coach has noticed defenders have been able to successfully plug holes at the line and keep Penn State’s linemen from developing their second-level blocks.
“We just have to get better at that and make sure our eyes are right and make sure our footwork is perfect and keep building off those fundamentals,” Trautwein said.
If Penn State needs motivation to play with more of an edge, it would make sense to point at the last meeting with Indiana. The Hoosiers kickstarted Penn State’s disastrous 2020 season when they scored a controversial 2-point conversion in overtime to snap a six-game losing streak in the series.
They also have played pretty well against the run, allowing just 108 yards per game so far.
Head coach James Franklin dismissed any idea of “revenge” earlier this week, but did challenge his running backs to step up and boost the offensive line.
“There’s going to be some times where it’s not a clean hole," Franklin said. "We’ve got to be willing to stick our foot in the ground and get downhill as a runner and run people over.”
It was Michael Penix Jr.‘s memorable 2-point conversion run that beat Penn State in overtime in last year’s season opener.
This season, Penix has struggled. He’s thrown three interceptions in each of the Hoosiers’ two losses and is completing 55% of his pass attempts. But last week he appeared to revert to form. He thew for 383 yards, had no interceptions and scored on a touchdown run in a victory over Western Kentucky.
But against the No. 12 scoring defense, Indiana coach Tom Allen knows Penix must be even better on Saturday.
“I feel like coming out of this game this week against Western Kentucky there was progress with Michael and his play, decision-making, different things, different throws,” Allen said. “He’s still got to keep getting better, continue to improve. I expect that to happen. That to me is all part of each and every week, every position.”
THE WARREN FORMATION
Tight end Tyler Warren is comfortable taking snaps at the quarterback position, especially inside opponents’ 5-yard-line where all four of his runs have taken place.
The former high school quarterback has scored two touchdowns for the Nittany Lions off of direct snaps. Warren hinted this week that he can do more than plunge into or leap over a crowd at the goal line.
“It’s week-to-week on what we might do out of it,” Warren said.
Indiana lost one of its top playmakers, receiver D.J. Matthews Jr., during last weekend’s victory at Western Kentucky.
Matthews injured a leg when he planted it awkwardly while trying to catch a punt. A week earlier, the former Florida State player appeared to have his breakout game with a five-reception, 120-yard game against No. 7 Cincinnati.
Candidates for more playing time include Jacolby Hewitt, Malachi Holt-Bennett, and Jordyn Williams.
“It’s tough for D.J. We’ve had this happen with other players in the past, last year, the year before,” Allen said. “It does create an opportunity for somebody else. That’s part of life. You have to be able to, when called upon, rise up and seize the day.”
RED ZONE STARS
The Nittany Lions’ top-10 defense has been tough to crack, especially in the red zone.
Penn State has allowed just five touchdowns on 13 trips inside its own 20 and has also come away with a handful of turnovers.
“We’ve tried to be a little more varied at what we’re doing down there,” defensive coordinator Brent Pry said. “We’ve tried to mix it up and keep people more honest.”
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