Penn State football: What needs to be ironed out in Week 1 vs. Indiana
Year 7 of the James Franklin era at Penn State commences in Bloomington on Saturday, and it’ll be no small task to start the season with a win. Yes, the Nittany Lions are 22-1 all-time against Indiana, but the wins are rarely easy. Since 2004, Penn State is 6-1 in Bloomington, with 5 of the wins coming by 6 or fewer points.
Both teams are in the process of installing new offenses, with Penn State bringing in OC Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota and Indiana promoting Nick Sheridan.
The Nittany Lions have plenty of work to do in Week 1 before their season sinks or swims on Halloween night against Ohio State. Three of the biggest things Penn State needs to iron out are as follows:
Of primary concern if the Nittany Lions are to have any chance at achieving their lofty expectations this season is improvement in the secondary. Last season Penn State ranked 13th in the Big Ten in pass defense and was scorched for 371 yards by Indiana’s Peyton Ramsey. Ramsey has since transferred to Northwestern, but in his place is dynamic redshirt sophomore Michael Penix Jr.
Penix, who started 6 games last year and recorded 1,394 yards and 10 touchdowns, will operate behind a veteran offensive line with an elite group of pass-catchers to throw to.
Whop Philyor leads the Hoosiers receivers and is extra motivated against Penn State after being knocked out of last year’s game in Beaver Stadium early with a concussion. Philyor ranked 3rd in the B1G in receptions and 4th in receiving yards. Alongside Philyor is talented senior Ty Fryfogle and tight end Peyton Hendershot, who set school positional records for receptions (52) and yards (622) last year.
Cornerback Tariq-Castro Fields is back for his senior season at PSU after minor injuries hampered his 2019 and likely forced him to return to boost his NFL stock. He’ll now fill the role vacated by Jon Reid as Penn State’s top corner. He’ll be tasked with covering Philyor.
In a surprise, Joey Porter Jr. was named the other starting CB, and it will be interesting to see how much time he gets against the Hoosiers. Former 5-star Lamont Wade will be back in his role at safety to make sure nothing goes over the top.
Obviously Penn State was dinged with the loss of Journey Brown for an indeterminate amount of time, but if there was a position group that could absorb that type of hit and not skip a beat, it’s the running backs.
The starting job is Noah Cain’s, and he will get the majority of reps, unlike 2019 when the Nittany Lions split carries among 4 running backs for the early portion of the season before Cain was injured and Brown won the starting job.
The Nittany Lions lost Ricky Slade to the transfer market, but still have 3 supremely talented backs behind Cain in Devyn Ford, Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee.
Must be a #26 thing 👀
cc: @CaziahHolmes @saquon#WeAre pic.twitter.com/db8L4vpqKS
— Penn State Football (@PennStateFball) October 15, 2020
How Ciarrocca manages his stable of backs and sprinkles them in for different situations will be interesting to watch, especially without teams having to worry about burning redshirts this year. Penn State is likely going to pass the ball more this season with Ciarrocca’s RPO scheme, including using the running backs as receiving options. How things shake out in a shortened season is anybody’s guess. Saturday’s usage breakdown may or may not be indicative of what to expect a month from now.
Everyone was waiting to see which name would be listed as the 3rd receiver behind Jahan Dotson and Cam Sullivan-Brown, and somewhat surprisingly freshman Parker Washington got the job.
Take that and the rest of the Week 1 depth chart with a grain of salt as the receivers group in particular will likely be very fluid all season, but the fact Washington is starting over Daniel George without playing a college snap speaks highly of what the coaches must see in him.
Last year’s Indiana pass defense ranked 9th in the Big Ten and forced the 2nd-fewest interceptions, and it will be without its best player in safety Marcelino Ball after he tore his ACL during the offseason.
Dotson and TE Pat Freiermuth will match up favorably with most secondaries, let alone ones missing their best pieces. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Brenton Strange, who officially got the nod as tight end No. 2. Could he be next in the recent tight-end pipeline to come out of Happy Valley?